Watchdogs blast reinstatement of prison guard acquitted of misconduct

By: - March 7, 2023 5:30 pm

After a court upheld the reinstatement of a correctional officer fired after he was accused and acquitted of sexual misconduct, a civilian oversight board at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility is calling for more judicial sensitivity training. (Photo by Chalermphon Kumchai / EyeEm/Getty Images)

A civilian board that oversees reforms at the troubled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility is calling on state judicial leadership to train judges on “sexual and gender-based abuses of power in prisons” after a state appellate panel upheld the reinstatement of a guard fired in 2020 after he was accused and acquitted of sexual misconduct.

The seven members of Edna Mahan Correctional Facility’s board of trustees are also urging the state Department of Corrections to appeal the Feb. 24 ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“The decision is seriously disturbing to us as trustees, and further points to the critical issue of the way the appellate court mistakenly construes sexual assault, or undue familiarity within a prison system. Evidently, per this decision, kissing is acceptable, and begs a chilling question — where do we draw the line of ‘acceptable’ sexual conduct between correctional staff and the people in their professional custody and care?” the trustees wrote in a public statement they issued Tuesday.

The case stems from the 2016 arrest of Brian Ambroise, a senior correctional officer charged with sexual assault and official misconduct after an incarcerated woman told investigators the two kissed and had oral sex and that Ambroise delivered messages for her to an inmate in another housing unit, according to the ruling.

Ambroise initially admitted to the allegations against him, the ruling says. But he later recanted, saying he caved to aggressive questioning just to “get out of there” and that no inappropriate contact occurred aside from an unwanted “quick kiss” the inmate initiated and he rebuffed.

A jury found Ambroise, who had no prior record, not guilty in 2018.

Attorney James Wronko, who represented Ambroise, said mutual kissing, as the Edna Mahan trustees characterized it, was “not even close to what happened.”

“Simply because he was a man accused by a woman should never result in accusations that judges need sensitivity training,” Wronko said.

In 2020, the Department of Corrections sustained disciplinary charges against Ambroise for conduct unbecoming, undue familiarity with inmates, and other departmental violations, and Ambroise was fired.

Ambroise appealed, and Administrative Law Judge Sarah Crowley sided with him.

Crowley declared the inmate’s statements “inconsistent, unreliable, and uncorroborated” and found detectives coerced Ambroise’s confession by fabricating evidence and wrongly denied him his right to union representation. She dismissed most of the charges against him — except failure to report an unusual incident — and ordered him reinstated with back pay and a 20-day suspension for his reporting failure.

The Department of Corrections contested Crowley’s decision with the Civil Service Commission.

That body in 2021 upped Ambroise’s suspension to six months after deeming Ambroise’s failure to report the encounter “clearly serious and highly concerning” and his actions of passing messages between inmates to be “unduly familiar.” But the commission otherwise affirmed Crowley’s ruling.

The department again appealed.

But Judges Avis Bishop-Thompson and Lisa Puglisi last month agreed with the Civil Service Commission that a six-month suspension is fair and that Ambroise should be given “a second opportunity to prove his competence” because he hadn’t been found guilty of the most serious misconduct allegations against him.

“At this point, we’ve had 12 citizens of Hunterdon County judge it, we’ve had an administrative law judge judge it, we’ve had the Civil Service Commission judge it, and now we have had two Appellate Division judges judge it. He was determined to be not guilty by all of them,” Wronko said.

Bonnie Kerness is a trustee at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility and coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Program. (Photo courtesy of Gov. Phil Murphy’s office)

Opinions diverge

Bonnie Kerness is an Edna Mahan trustee and coordinator of the Prison Watch Program at the American Friends Service Committee.

She said the appellate decision undermines progress made to change the “culture of sexualized and gendered coercion, harassment and violence” at Edna Mahan in the three years since more than a dozen correctional officers there were indicted for brutality.

“Such a deep disappointment,” Kerness said of the ruling. “I can’t imagine the women feeling as safe now as they felt two weeks ago before this ruling.”

Returning a fired employee to duty strips state corrections officials of their ability to hold employees accountable for abuses of power, Kerness and the other trustees said.

“The appellate court’s decision makes it clear that criminal justice reform, trauma-informed training, and gender-informed training is desperately needed throughout the criminal legal system, including in the courts,” the trustees wrote.

A spokeswoman for the courts declined to comment.

Amy Z. Quinn, a state corrections spokeswoman, said department officials are “deeply concerned and troubled” by the recent appellate ruling and mulling their next steps.

“This decision undermines and erodes the department’s ongoing efforts at enforcing zero-tolerance towards any form of sexual abuse and harassment of incarcerated persons,” Quinn said.

William Sullivan heads the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local #105, which represents more than 5,000 state correctional officers. He defended Ambroise.

“He fought his case in court, and he’s got a right to go back to work,” Sullivan said. “He’s gone above and beyond proving his innocence.”

Wronko, Ambroise’s lawyer, said his client “has been put through years of stress, borderline torture, public humiliation, only to be exonerated.”

“How exonerated are you ever? He’s been dragged through the mud and his name is in the papers. That stigma doesn’t get erased,” Wronko said.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.