Jim Crow Lives: The Ugly Face of Racism Behind the Bars

by Latif Lamonte

Bayside State Prison is the worst-of-the-worst, administered by the most racist guards and staff the State of New Jersey can muster. The author is one of those forced to live under Bayside’s reign of terror. “These were not just any beatings, but beatings inflicting such brutal force, that one was broken to the point of sobbing, begging for his life.”

Jim Crow Lives: The Ugly Face of Racism Behind the Bars

by Latif Lamonte

This article is excerpted from the author's unpublished manuscript of his book, New Jersey’s Hidden Shame: The Tragedy of Bayside State Prison.

"How is it possible that no one knows about this place when this state's governor contemplates holding the office of president?”

Within each state prison, the State and Federal Courts, Department of Corrections and prison administrators have constructed an Administrative Grievance Procedure to address inmate complaints. This process is a critical component to giving inmates a mechanism to the administrative authorities that they may seek remedy for diverse grievances. As a matter of law, it is every inmate’s First Amendment right to seek redress through this grievance procedure. Hence, it is well understood, by both inmates, and to the detriment of every prisoner and staff alike, that this procedure must be completed before seeking relief in any judicial proceeding.

At Bayside, the Inmate Handbook provides relevant information as instruction for using the remedy process. However, this is nothing more than a smoke screen, a useless display, designed to dupe external officials and to meet state, federal and institutional mandates. For inasmuch as Bayside has its own practices, its own laws, and any inmate who dares to file or pursue remedy against staff or complain will sadly and painfully discover exactly what these practices are.

Everyone here is aware of this danger, and although staff are outrageously disrespectful and prevocational, no one endeavors to tempt fate. Be not fooled, neither this truth nor any of the aforementioned is designed to add drama or theatrics to my expression. They are merely intended to convey the depth of how depraved, ruthlessly sadistic and cold these criminals actually are. More importantly, these words will convey how fear is the constant companion of the prisoners confined within this facility.

Many years ago, while still confined at the New Jersey State Prison (Trenton), I would hear stories from prisoners transferred from Bayside of the treatment inmates received at that facility. They told what I believed were “tall tales” or “exaggerated fables” of the racism and brutality transpiring there. They passionately spoke of the beatings, stompings, set-ups and open demonstrations of hatred staff directed towards prisoners. Each assertion I nonchalantly perceived as unimaginable. Of course this was during a critical period in penal history, as it was during this time that an officer had been stabbed to death at Bayside. Nevertheless, much like the people in authority who'd actually received these complaints, I rejected their factual assertions as totally preposterous.

“Bayside has its own practices, its own laws.”

Years later, while working the segregation units, I would converse with prisoners young and old about Bayside. I'd witness as they'd contest being classified here and receive charges for refusing the assignment. It puzzled me that they were more willing to remain in administrative segregation, than to receive assignment at Bayside State Prison. I later discovered that many of those I'd spoken with had personally suffered beatings at the hands of Bayside's staff. According to them, these were not just any beatings, but beatings inflicting such brutal force, that one was broken to the point of sobbing, begging for his life, often calling out to other prisoners for help, when no help was forthcoming. Since that time, I have personally seen the carnage and witnessed the boots to the head, face and body of handcuffed and sometimes unconscious prisoners. Now years later, with my own ears, I have heard the cries of men during these assaults and agonized. Although wishing I did not, today I am forced by reality to accept all they shared back then. However, sadly, beatings are recognized as “badges of honor” by staff at Bayside. We prisoners, as fate would have it, are the unavoidable victims. We therefore walk on egg shells or in some cases remain inside our cells, hoping to evade becoming the object of their fetish for inmate blood. Considering this, I ponder, “grievance procedure,” what grievance procedures?

One incident that stands out in my mind occurred before I arrived at Bayside. I share this particular incident because the brutal practice and staff propensity for retaliation through violence remains true to this day. The incident, which is a matter of public record, involved inmate Dione Brown and occurred in June 2008. Apparently unfamiliar with an existing practice of retribution for those who utilized the inmate remedy process, Brown did so. As a result, according to the record, his cell was ransacked, and mustard was poured on and into all of his personal belongings. After returning to the cell, he was ordered by staff to clean the mess, thus requiring that he leave the unit. Doing so, he was followed by the officers who'd ordered him to clean the cell and severely beaten. He was stomped in the groin, repeatedly kicked in the head and throughout his body. While inside infirmary, the prisons detention unit, a supervisor was said to have repeatedly stomped on his neck. Brown sustained severe injuries for nothing more than filing a grievance. Subsequently, and as is common practice when covering staff violence, Brown was charged with assaulting staff and, following a pseudo hearing, was found guilty.

“I have personally seen the carnage and witnessed the boots to the head, face and body of handcuffed and sometimes unconscious prisoners.”

One day, while on the job, I quietly spoke with a couple of prisoners with whom I'm acquainted, about the remedy process on their units. One explained that he'd “never seen anyone drop any remedy forms” and laughed. When I asked why he'd laughed, he commented, “They got people trained not to go near that box. They know what will happen.” The other prisoner, although explaining that he never used the remedy system, shared additional information on an existing practice on his unit. He said that if you requested a remedy form on D unit, you were required to fill it out, bring it to the officer's desk and show it to staff before submitting it.

I am likewise aware of access deprivations on yet another unit. There, when requesting remedy forms, prisoners are required to bring their identification cards to the desk. Staff then completes the top portion, which includes the inmates name and State Bureau of Identification (SBI) number. This form is then logged into a book. Only by this intimidating means will prisoners on that unit “ever” be afforded the remedy form requested. These customs are a certain deterrence for anyone in Bayside who wishes to utilize the remedy process. Even more compelling is the severity of the whippings administered and the psychology that accompanies the means by which these whippings are administered — in the presence of the entire unit.

One inmate, seeking to file a grievance, proceeded to the officer's station on E Unit and requested a remedy form. He was advised to come back later and accordingly returned to his cell. Later, while traveling to recreation, concluding that then would he the opportune time to make the request, he again sought the remedy form. He was told: “Shut the f—k up and get your ass outta here! Who the f—k do you think you are!”

Totally caught off guard, the inmate replied, “I only requested a remedy form,” and proceeded out the door to the recreation area. Seconds later, while outside enjoying the weather, he observed the frustrated officer coming in his direction. As he stood up to see what the problem was, the officer slapped him in the face with an open hand knocking his glasses to the ground. He then warned, “Next time keep your f—ing mouth shut!” In a huff, he turned and walked away. The inmate never received the form.

A System of Intimidation and Fear

In early 2012, an acquaintance of mine, an older man, arrived at Bayside from another facility. Not yet aware of the dangers or customs here, perturbed by something he observed, he filed a remedy contesting certain food service practices. A short time later, he was called down to the shack located in the center area. There, he was confronted by a food service supervisor, an assistant administrator, two sergeants and a lieutenant. After formal introductions, the assistant administrator initiated the conversation. It was clear from the very beginning that the atmosphere was one designed to intimidate and invoke fear. He asked my acquaintance if he'd written the complaint. Responding that he had, the discussion took an unexpected change of direction. “Did you type this in the law library?” He replied that he had not. “How did you type it, do you have a typewriter inside your cell?” To this he replied he did.

After this brief discussion with the assistant administrator and the food service supervisor, everyone was asked if they had anything more to say. At this juncture a sergeant angrily declared, “I don't see how this s—t got this far.” The prisoner was then directed to return to his unit. Less than ·a hour later, his job as a unit social worker was terminated. Similarly, and also attributed to his having filed the grievance, he was later reassigned to the trailers. Despite all indications that this reassignment appears harmless or coincidental, it was nonetheless a part of the systematic retaliation which occurs here, as the trailer assignment does not permit prisoners to retain any appliances. In addition, every request to be returned to the housing units on the compound or for institutional transfer to another prison facility, has been denied. By the way, the inmate has never received a response or a copy of the grievance filed.

“Fearfully, prisoners abandon the grievance process and stand in silence during investigations or administrative tours.”

Indifference and even support for these practices reach the highest levels of both custodial and administrative authorities. This would include the Department of Corrections itself. For within the DOC, there exists a reckless disregard for the possibilities that could lead to disaster for any prisoner. Equipped with awareness of this disregard, fearfully, prisoners abandon the grievance process and stand in silence during investigations or administrative tours, as it is these same authorities that initiate and support the mistreatment and physical assaults perpetrated against the inmate population. Consider this: prisoners know and see what you do not.

It is alarming to my sense of consciousness that in a state where the current governor once policed the police and politicians, that he or his subordinates would allow a racially and morally destructive environment such as that maintained at the Bayside State Prison to exist. Equally alarming is the reality that staff here are so confident in their criminality, that they display no outward signs of concern for detection. They remain confident that their conspiratorial community of purpose or the blue wall of silence they've erected would remain unfaltering, and systematically serve to shelter them from any disclosure or punishment. How is it possible that no one knows about this place when this state's governor contemplates holding the office of president of these United States? Surely, someone must know of what goes on here. Someone must know!

Born here and having witnessed much of its beauty, I love this country. However, as a convicted felon who, regrettably, at this writing is serving time, I understand that behind this wall I lose many of the inalienable rights afforded me by the U.S. Constitution. As a prison paralegal, I also recognize that the due process and First Amendment protections attached to the remedy process are rights that were not surrendered. If prisoners cannot utilize, due to fear, the only means by which they may seek redress without being threatened, set-up or beaten, we as a society have been reduced in our civilization, reduced to the point where the Constitution, which we hold as the ultimate authority in the civilized world, is lessened in its significance, possessing no more value than the single-ply toilet paper we prisoners receive to wipe our asses.

Latif Lamonte is an inmate at Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, N.J. This article is an excerpt from his unpublished manuscript.