Drugs, violence, missing property are common complaints in New Jersey prisons, monitor says

By: - November 1, 2023 8:00 am

People incarcerated in New Jersey filed almost 12,000 requests for help with the state ombudsperson's office over the past year. (Photo by Getty Images)

Drugs are so commonplace in New Jersey prisons that many often smell like burning paper and chemicals. Incarcerated people’s property routinely gets lost, stolen, or confiscated, prompting thousands of complaints a year. And rulebreakers often get placed in isolation where they’re deprived of basic necessities, in violation of both state limits on solitary confinement and best practices preached by the state Department of Corrections itself.

Those were some of the takeaways of a new annual report released Wednesday by the state corrections ombudsperson, an independent watchdog who is tasked with protecting incarcerated people and recommending reforms.

Ombudsperson Terry Schuster said his report gives the public a rare peek into a system closed off from the outside world and serves as needed oversight on how policy decisions impact people in state custody.

“Lawmakers and the public need neutral and unbiased information about how tax dollars are being spent, and assurance that those removed from society for a period of time are protected from harm and treated with humanity,” Schuster wrote in the report.

Schuster’s office received 11,938 requests for help between Sept. 1, 2022, and Aug. 31, 2023, with about two-thirds coming from the state’s three largest lockups, South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, Northern State Prison in Newark, and New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, according to the report. About 11,000 people are incarcerated in the state’s nine adult prisons, state data shows.

Most complaints were driven by five concerns, largely unchanged from trends Schuster’s office detected the previous year:

  • Property concerns prompted 2,016 requests for help. Many reported their belongings and money got lost or stolen, often after a housing transfer within the Department of Corrections.
  • Health care, 1,948 requests. Complaints involved people waiting to be seen by a provider or for follow-up information or test results; problems with prescription medications; inadequate access to specialist care like oncology, cardiology, surgery, and ophthalmology; transportation to appointments; and access to medical records. “Patients in state custody don’t have the freedom to choose their providers, and the quality and timeliness of their care can have serious implications for their health and wellbeing,” Schuster wrote.
  • Housing and classification, 1,618 requests. This included concerns about placement in isolation.
  • Telephone, mail, and electronic communication with people on the outside, 1,055 requests.
  • Personal safety, 840 requests. People reported assaults, uses of force by prison staff, bullying, and name-calling.

Incarcerated people also reported concerns about discipline and behavior management; confinement conditions; difficulties accessing legal assistance or records; prison programs, jobs, and recreation opportunities; parole; and county jail conditions.

Housing assignments

Care and accommodations for transgender people also drove many complaints, the report notes.

State corrections officials have taken steps to provide gender-affirming housing and health care services for transgender people, including creating a process to consider housing requests for transgender or non-binary people and a “vulnerable population unit” at Garden State Correctional Facility with more protections than general population units, the report says.

But some transgender women reported bullying, harassment, and fears for their safety (for those housed in men’s prisons), Schuster found. Others complained that the system has been slow to offer gender-affirming items for sale in the commissary and delayed or interrupted specialist health care.

“We also hear consistent concerns that housing determinations place more emphasis on a person’s genitalia and reproductive capabilities than on their safety,” Schuster wrote. “The Office will continue to prioritize monitoring in this area.”

Schuster also voiced concerns about how prison staff manage disruptive behavior, singling out how the system frequently flouts a 2019 state law severely limiting solitary confinement.

He cited punitive measures that make living conditions “bleak, unhealthy, or inhumane,” including staff taking away bottled water, commissary food items, shampoo and other personal care items, and outdoor recreation time, and placing “extreme limits” on pens, phone calls, photographs, and electronics.

“We’ve seen people serving long disciplinary sanctions in housing units designed for temporary holds, spending months or years without electrical outlets,” Schuster wrote. “In contrast to the trauma-informed approaches to creating safety that the Department has so effectively instituted at the women’s prison, these risk management efforts in the men’s prisons involve a high degree of deprivation and require regular and ongoing monitoring.”

Schuster also expressed concern about understaffing, saying staff vacancies, leaves, rising retirements, sick call-outs, and declining job applications have resulted in staff being routinely mandated to work double shifts and officials packing incarcerated people into fewer housing units.

That can cause more conflicts behind bars, driving staff to cancel programs, family visits, and work assignments and leaving people with more idle time in their cells rather than purposeful activity, he noted.

Paying correctional officers more would improve recruitment and retention, and further cutting the prison population would help eliminate crowding and conflict behind bars, he wrote.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Amy Z. Quinn said Schuster’s report addresses topics the department already has identified as priorities, including preventing drugs from entering prisons through the mail by adopting mail-scanning systems, upping correctional officers’ pay to better recruit and retain staff, and recently forming a working group to address lost or stolen property.

“The department continues to tackle the issues outlined in the report, and welcomes the ongoing thought partnership and recommendations that the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson can provide,” Quinn said in a statement.

(Chart courtesy of N.J. Ombudsperson’s Office)

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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.