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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Saturday, July 10, 2010

NJ Prisons Exposed: HBO's "An Omar Broadway Film"

Here is a synopsis of the movie.

Here is what Solitarywatch wrote about the film.

This comes from Garden State CURE, New Jersey's chapter of the national "Citizens United For Restoration of Errants" - they do awesome criminal justice reform work (but need a lot of help with their website, apparently).

If you miss this broadcast, contact HBO and ask how to get a copy of the show. For more information about Garden State CUre, I'm sure Donna would be happy to have you contact her.

In the meantime, check out the resources that CURE National has.

---------------------------

From: donntay@aol.com

Sent: Sat, Jul 10, 2010 12:54 am

Hello everyone:

As the Executive Director of Garden State CURE, CURE Leaders should recall I produced a CD at our last 2 conventions in an attempt to expose abuse in NJ Prisons. The Footage was taken by an inmate in Northern State Prison who was successful in sneaking a camera in to document the abuses we would otherwise never see. His mother was diligent in her plight to expose the abuse in NJ Prisons and I am very pleased to announce the documentary called "An Omar Broadway Film" will broadcast on HBO, Wednesday at 8 pm EST. Please watch this documentary. Im sure it will be an eye opening experience even for those of us who already know the deal. God bless.

Ambassador Donna Brewer
Executive Director
Garden State CURE, Inc.
215.892.8796
Radio Talk Show Host
Restorative Justice

More on this subject from the Boston Globe:

REVIEW
A view of prison life — from the inside
By Sam Allis, Globe Staff | July 14, 2010

We’ve seen sanitized glimpses of prison life before, in print and on television magazines. There is a distance to all of them from the inner reality of those institutions. Such efforts are almost always approved by corrections officials, and we see very little of the life those officials don’t want us to see. And then comes Omar Broadway.

Broadway, a member of the notorious Bloods gang, with a hair-raising criminal record, had served seven years in solitary confinement at New Jersey’s infamous Northern State Prison in Newark, on multiple felony convictions. Someone, presumably a sympathetic guard, smuggled him a digital video camera in 2004 to document conditions there. For six months, he recorded the life around him.

Despite limited camera range because of the small opening in his cell door, bad lighting, and jumpy camera work, he presents hallucinogenic sights and sounds of prison life — the remote echoes of voices, blurry frames of cell bars, indistinct figures of guards, inmates in their cells engaged in furious shadowboxing.

What he ends up with is “An Omar Broadway Film,’’ codirected by Broadway and Douglas Tirola, which was well received at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. HBO bought it during the festival, he says, following its penchant for airing documentaries you can’t imagine seeing anywhere else.

This one chronicles the appalling prisoner abuse by guards as well as the terror of the officers working there. The guards are a gang in their own right, formed to protect themselves from very dangerous men who are behind bars 23 hours a day. There exists a vicious intimacy between the two camps.

Most shocking are the protests by prisoners who refuse to return to their cells. They cover themselves in plastic to minimize the effects of pepper spray from the guards in riot gear, who charge in force. The guards quickly overwhelm the prisoners and beat them on the floor. Broadway chronicles a number of these ghastly rituals. The prisoners know what to expect, yet wait for the onslaught anyway, out of bravery or nihilistic resignation.

The documentary presents the prisoners as victims of the brutal environment. They are, but missing is what brought them there in the first place. These are bad actors, the most difficult gang leaders and members. They were sent to a special place — the Security Threat Group Management Unit, devised to isolate them from the general prison population — yet mention of their crimes in any specificity is lacking.

Tirola, president of 4th Row Films, directs those segments filmed outside of prison that focus on the mean streets of East Orange, N.J., where Broadway grew up. Drugs, violence, the neighborhood has it all. Broadway’s mother, Lynne, gives us a tour of the area. She is a strong-willed woman, defending her son and minimizing his criminal life.

Eventually, sympathetic guards, who all identify themselves as “Walter,’’ contact Broadway on his cellphone and help smuggle out the tapes. Broadway expects outrage from the public when it sees the footage. Not a chance. A local network affiliate airs some of it without result. Oprah Winfrey never responds to a request to air it. Broadway’s mother tries to sell DVDs of the footage on the streets. She sells 32.

She need worry no longer. HBO2 presents the film tonight to a national audience. Omar couldn’t ask for more.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.
Boston Globe

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

N.J. Prison Abused Inmates During Month-Long Lockdown

From: SolitaryWatch

April 14, 2010

by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

Solitary confinement in U.S. prisons can take many forms–including the temporary lockdown of units, buildings, or entire prisons. These 24-hour lockdowns are routinely instituted in response to perceived threats to prison safety or authority. On occasion, they can extend to days, weeks, or even months, during which the prison is under a kind of martial law even more extreme than its normal conditions.

At Bayside State Prison in southern New Jersey, this kind of lockdown was instituted after the murder of a guard in 1997. It lasted more than a month, during which hundreds of Bayside prisoners say they were beaten and otherwise abused.

Their complaints languished for a decade. But last month, a retired judge, who was appointed by the federal courts to be a fact-finder in the case, determined that the New Jersey Department of Corrections is liable for their abuse. The decision by former U.S. District Chief Judge John W. Bissell, clears the way for inmates to sue the state.

A detailed report by Mike Newell in the Philadelphia Inquirer describes what took place at the prison in the summer of 1997.

Bayside, a medium-security prison with nearly 2,400 inmates in Cumberland County, was put on lockdown between July 30 and Sept. 3, 1997, after guard Fred Baker was stabbed in the back by an inmate with a makeshift knife.

Prisoners were confined to their cells, visitors were prohibited, and a Special Operations Group (SOG) consisting of 57 corrections officers from across New Jersey interrogated inmates and searched cells for weapons. The SOG officers dressed in riot gear, carried batons and mace, and did not wear name badges.

When the lockdown was lifted, inmates began to report stories of abuse to the Department of Corrections. More than three dozen inmates told The Inquirer in 1997 that they had been repeatedly beaten, dragged, forced to sit handcuffed in the prison gym for hours, threatened with dogs, and paraded through a gauntlet of SOG officers who beat them with nightsticks.

What happened next is an extreme version of a typical story–a series of half-hearted “investigations” and widespread coverups. As John Sullivan reported in the New York Times in 2003, in a long investigative article on the lockdown:

After the lockdown ended in September 1997, complaints of abuse began to leak from the prison. Newspapers reported the stories, and the Department of Corrections promised a thorough investigation.

The F.B.I. began to investigate after receiving written complaints from several inmates. But the investigator’s case file, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, showed that the agent handling the case made only one telephone call: to the internal affairs division’s office at Bayside State Prison. Over the phone, the file says, the agent learned that internal affairs planned to conduct its own investigation. Because internal affairs was already on the job, and because some inmates had hired lawyers, the agent concluded no further F.B.I. investigation was needed. The agent closed the case.

The F.B.I. file also noted that the United States attorney’s office in Newark had subpoenaed records about the lockdown, but the Justice Department said it closed the case in August 1999, for lack of evidence. Both the United States attorney and the F.B.I. declined to comment.

In the end, the investigation fell to the Department of Corrections’ internal affairs unit. Internal affairs investigators conducted hundreds of interviews and gave lie detector tests to several inmates. Some inmates passed those tests when they reported abuse by guards. But in nearly every case, investigators said they could not substantiate the charges against guards. Often, the investigators’ reports said cases boiled down to inmates’ words against guards’, or inmates could not clearly identify the guards in question.

”It seems almost there was a decision not to credit what an inmate says,” said Justin Loughry, a lawyer representing some Bayside inmates. By late 1998, internal affairs investigators concluded there was no evidence of widespread abuse…In the end, no charges, criminal or administrative, related to the aftermath of the murder were brought against guards at Bayside.

But ”questions about the Bayside episode refused to die,” the Times reported. The newspaper’s own investigations, along with those of inmates’ lawyers, uncovered internal prison documents, videotapes, and testimony from whistleblowers that supported the inmates abuse claims. Investigators complained of being told to file inaccurate reports. A few guards came forward to tell about the abuses they witnessed, and one prison ombudsman said that the warden had “responded to reports of injuries by saying prisoners had probably gotten into fights or fallen against their bunks.” According to the Times article:

Portions of surveillance videotapes, identified through the state’s Public Records Law, show guards dragging a handcuffed inmate down a steel staircase like a bag of laundry, and yanking another screaming inmate along a hallway. Other tapes show inmates with cuts and bruises. When an inmate being dragged along the floor begs to walk, a supervisor orders guards to keep him on the ground.

”Don’t pick him up, drag him,” a voice says on the tape. ”I want him drug along the floor, just like that, like a pig.”…

Inmates told similar tales. Adrian Torres, imprisoned for car theft, said prisoners were forced to kneel motionless in the gym for hours. Anyone who moved or complained was dragged to the back of the room and beaten, he said.

”You had inmates urinating in their clothes,” Mr. Torres said in an interview at Northern State Prison in Newark. ”They made it clear: If you turn your head, if you lift your hand up, if you even say anything, they were going to beat you up.”

A prison nurse testified in an unrelated administrative trial that hundreds of inmates went to the infirmary after altercations with guards. The former warden of a nearby prison said that an inmate returned from a work detail at Bayside bearing marks of a beating.

One guard, who requested anonymity, recalled that inmates were forced to walk a gantlet of guards who beat them with nightsticks. ”I could hear them screaming,” the guard said. ”It was horrible.”…

One prisoner, Wilbert Jones, said he was attacked and beaten without provocation by a group of guards, then charged with refusing to follow orders, and placed in solitary confinement for 180 days. ”It is unimaginable when you are in the hole, locked up for something you didn’t do,” Jones told the Times. ”That had to be the lowest point in my life.” His account was later corroborated by another guard who witnessed the attack, but because of the incident, he was denied parole–and remains in prison today.

Four days after the New York Times article appeared, in April 2003, the New Jersey attorney general opened a new investigation. A few inmates have since won damages in civil trials. But the March 29 decision by Judge Bissell will allow dozens, if not hundreds of inmates to sue the state for monetary damages.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bissell found that it was reasonable for the DOC to place the prison on lockdown following the killing of a guard. However, “both as designed and thereafter implemented, [the lockdown] violated the Eighth Amendment rights of inmates.” It quickly became clear that the guard’s murder was “an isolated incident,” Bissell wrote, so ”a full lockdown with SOG’s intimidating presence was not only unnecessary, but dangerous to the safety and well-being of the inmates.”

How often do we hear government officials express concern about “the safety and well-being of inmates”? To hear these words from a former federal district court judge, who has been appointed as a “special master” and empowered to make decisions about the case, offers some hope that after 13 years, these prisoners may finally find some justice.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

5 Former AGs Challenge Jails' Blanket Strip Searches

From: ACLU-NJ
For Immediate Release
January 19, 2010

NEWARK, NJ - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) today filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of five former New Jersey Attorneys General opposing the blanket strip search policies of the Burlington County Jail and Essex County Correctional Facility. The jails' policies currently require strip searches for people charged with but not convicted of minor offenses, and even when there is no reasonable suspicion that an arrestee possesses contraband.

"Strip searching every detainee is unconstitutional, it contributes little to jail security and it creates an intolerable risk of subjecting detainees to needless humiliation," said Ed Barocas, Legal Director for the ACLU-NJ. "There is no legitimate reason for these types of policies to exist."

The amicus brief , filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on behalf of former New Jersey Attorneys General Robert J. Del Tufo, Deborah T. Poritz, John J. Farmer Jr., Peter C. Harvey and Zulima V. Farber, defends the privacy and Fourth Amendment rights of Albert Florence.

Florence filed a lawsuit in 2005 charging officials at the two jails with unconstitutionally subjecting him to two strip searches despite a lack of reasonable suspicion. The searches followed his erroneous arrest during a 2005 traffic stop for a fine he had already paid. He was ordered during the searches to squat naked and, while standing in front of prison guards, to lift his genitals.

"Being forced to strip naked is humiliating, and people charged with minor crimes shouldn't be strip searched unless there's a reason to think they're hiding something," said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.

Consistent with legal precedent, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez ruled in February 2009 that the strip search of Florence violated the Constitution. However, officials representing both Burlington and Essex Counties appealed the decision, placing the case before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The former Attorneys General's brief notes that Judge Rodriguez's decision prevents strip searches only for non-indictable offenses that do not involve contraband and when there is no reason to suspect contraband. Additionally, his decision does not preclude strip searches following visitation.

Previous federal rulings have also banned strip searches of low-level arrestees unless jail officials can prove reasonable suspicion that the inmate may have drugs, guns or other illegal contraband. The standard of reasonable suspicion still allows prison officials to use broad discretion in determining if a strip search is necessary.

A copy of the amicus brief is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/florence-v-board-chosen-freeholders-county-burlington-et-al-amicus-brief

Additional information about ACLU-NJ is available online at: http://www.aclu-nj.org

Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prison

NJ Overturns Unjust Sentencing Law

From: ACLU-NJ

For Immediate Release
December 10, 2009
Judges will now have discretion in sentencing for non-violent offenses

TRENTON — In a landmark victory for civil rights, the New Jersey Senate today passed a bill (S1866) revising a decades-old policy that had punished people more harshly for committing non-violent drug crimes within several hundred feet of schools, unfairly targeting city dwellers. Once signed into law, individual judges will be able to use their discretion to issue fair sentences appropriate to the crimes committed.

"This legislation is smart on crime, not soft on crime. It marks a major step forward toward achieving justice in New Jersey's criminal justice system," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU-NJ. "New Jersey's judges will now have authority to sentence people based on the severity of the crime, not the location."

This legislation overturns the drug-free school zone law, which mandated lengthy sentences for any drug crime committed near a school. As a result, people in New Jersey's more densely packed areas — for example, cities like Newark, Camden, Jersey City or New Brunswick — have been subject to a stricter standard of justice than those in the suburbs. Over the course of the drug-free school zone policy, 96 percent of those arrested for drug-free school offenses in New Jersey were black or Latino.

The Assembly passed the companion legislation, A2762, last year, and will need to vote on it once again to concur with the Senate version. Gov. Jon Corzine has said he will sign the bill once it reaches his desk.

This legislation promises fairness not only to New Jersey citizens relying on the criminal justice system, but to taxpayers. New Jersey's prisons and jails are dangerously overcrowded and many non-violent offenders are serving sentences much longer than needed. Judges will be able to decide the appropriate punishments, and New Jerseyans will know that everyone, everywhere across the state has a fairer shot at justice.

Changing this law has been a top priority for the ACLU-NJ over the past decade, in a broad coalition with organizations including the Coalition of Community Corrections Providers of New Jersey, Corporation for Supportive Housing, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Hispanic Directors Association, Latino Leadership Alliance, New Jersey Association on Correction, Volunteers of American Delaware Valley and Women Who Never Give Up. In addition, cities like Newark and Camden have passed resolutions supporting S1866.

Ordained Pentecostal Minister Can Preach In Prison After ACLU Lawsuit

From: ACLU NJ

For Immediate Release
December 3, 2009

TRENTON, NJ - Prompted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, state prison officials in New Jersey have agreed to restore the right of a devout Christian prisoner to preach at weekly worship services and teach Bible study classes.

Under the terms of a settlement agreement, Howard Thompson, Jr., an ordained Pentecostal minister, will once again be allowed to preach in prison, a practice banned two years ago without any warning or justification.

"The decision by prison officials in New Jersey to allow Mr. Thompson to resume practicing his faith is a welcome acknowledgement that religious freedom in this country extends to all," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The ban on prisoner preaching was clearly at odds with the law and the American value of religious liberty, and this decision was long overdue."

Thompson had preached at weekly worship services at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) for more than a decade when, in 2007, prison officials issued a blanket ban on such preaching by prisoners, even when done under the direct supervision of prison staff. In response, the ACLU and the ACLU of New Jersey filed a lawsuit on Thompson's behalf last December, arguing that the ban unconstitutionally infringed upon Thompson's right to freely practice his religion. The lawsuit named NJSP Administrator Michelle R. Ricci and New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner George W. Hayman as defendants.

Since entering NJSP in 1986, Thompson has been an active member of the prison's Christian community, preaching at Sunday services, teaching Bible study classes and founding the choir. His preaching never caused any security problems. Indeed, the prison's chaplaincy staff had actively supported and encouraged Thompson, believing that he was a positive influence on his fellow inmates.

"The ban prevented me from responding to my religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, something I had done honestly, effectively and without any incident for years," said Thompson. "All I have ever wanted was to have my religious rights restored so that I could continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."

Ordained in October 2000 during a service at NJSP overseen by the prison's chaplain, Thompson sincerely believes it is his religious calling and obligation to preach his Pentecostal faith and has always been willing to do so under the full supervision of NJSP staff.

"The right to freely express religious viewpoints without the fear of repercussions is one of Americans' most fundamental constitutional rights," said Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "It is gratifying to see prison officials in our state take that constitutional obligation seriously."

The legal team for Thompson included Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Barocas and Nadia Seeratan of the ACLU of New Jersey.

The lawsuit was just the latest in a long line of ACLU cases defending the fundamental right to religious exercise, a more expansive list of which is available online at: www.aclu.org/defendingreligion

A copy of the settlement agreement is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/thompson-v-ricci-et-al-settlement-agreement

A copy of the ACLU's complaint on behalf of Thompson is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/37953lgl20081120.html

Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion

Additional information about the ACLU of New Jersey is available online at: www.aclu-nj.org