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PLN mentioned in article re prisoner civil rights litigation, Jan. 13, 2017.

Lawsuits target Cumberland jail for assaults, deaths, retaliation

BRIDGETON — A former Cumberland County jail inmate alleges in a federal lawsuit filed Jan. 9 that he was beaten by at least 14 other prisoners in January 2015 while corrections officers did little to stop the assault.

Frank Lee charges in the lawsuit the kicks and punches to his body, and a stab wound to an eye inflicted with a knife made by one of the jail inmates, left him with injuries for which he is still undergoing treatment.

The lawsuit filed by Lee, who was attacked while waiting transfer to a state prison after being sentenced on drug charges, is another in a series of legal actions taken against the jail since December 2011.

Those 13 other lawsuits, obtained by The Press of Atlantic City via an Open Public Records Act request, were filed over incidents that included four deaths, allegations of physical and sexual assaults on inmates by corrections officers, and poor medical treatment for inmates. One plaintiff charges she was strip-searched by jail staff who wanted to determine her gender, an act performed in violation of state laws governing strip searches.

Cumberland County Solicitor Ted Baker and jail Warden Bob Balicki couldn’t be reached for comment.

Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joseph Derella declined comment on the lawsuits.

Derella said all jail incidents are “fully investigated.” There are policies and procedures that govern those investigations and the type of discipline that can be imposed as a result of those investigations, he said.

The Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders is also “well-informed” regarding the lawsuits and other activities at the jail, he said.

Conrad Benedetto, a Philadelphia attorney whose law office represents Lee, said in a statement that what happened to Lee represents “the indifference and disregard for inmate safety that seems to be tolerated at the Cumberland County Correctional Facility.”

“It’s the same indifference and disregard which may have led to the deaths of several inmates while they were housed within the confines of the facility,” Benedetto said. “Clearly, corrective measures need to be implemented.”

Benedetto’s law firm represents the estates of Millville resident Alissa Allen, Vineland residents David Hennis and Robert Lewis, and Bridgeton resident Jon Watson. They died after being found hanging in the facility. Their families charge in their federal civil-rights lawsuits that jail staff was negligent in providing everything from adequate inmate supervision to medical attention.

Kimmo Z.H. Abbasi, the attorney in Benedetto’s law firm handling Lee’s case, said jail corrections officers were “standing in the vicinity of the assault watching the attack take place and not taking any immediate action to stop” the attack on Lee.

“Lee is undergoing treatment for his injuries, which are believed to be permanent and will possibly require a lifetime of treatment,” Abassi said.

Lee is now in Northern State Prison in Essex County serving sentences imposed on drug charges out of Cumberland County and a burglary charge out of Atlantic County. He has parole eligibility April 24, 2020, state Department of Corrections records show.

The lawsuits in connection with the Cumberland County jail were filed as the number of civil-rights cases brought in federal courts by state and county inmates have decreased significantly since 1994.

Civil-rights cases declined from about 40,000 in 1994 to about 23,000 in 2004, according to the Florida-based Prison Legal News. The number of filed civil-rights cases remained flat through 2012, the last year for which statistics were available, the organization reports.

The Prison Legal News contends the decline was primarily prompted by the 1996 federal Prison Litigation Reform Act. Among the act’s stipulations were increased fees for inmates, decreased fees for attorneys and limited damage awards.

Not all the lawsuits filed in connection with the Cumberland County jail involved prisoners.

Walter Wroniuk, a former lieutenant at the jail, alleges in a lawsuit filed in June that Warden Balicki fostered a “sexually charged environment in the workplace” and made inappropriate comments about his girlfriend.”

Corrections Officers Donnie Hill and Cynthia Reid alleged in their September 2015 lawsuit they were assigned “less desirable posts” after they complained about a supervisor who made inappropriate and lewd comments about their personal relationship.

And one plaintiff alleged in her December 2011 lawsuit to suffering significant injuries when she sliced her finger on barbed wire hanging outside of the prison fence. The injury occurred while she was visiting someone at the jail.