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Blackwell v. Department of Corrections

February 20, 2002

EMOTION BLACKWELL, APPELLANT
v.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT



Before Judges Pressler, Ciancia and Parrillo.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ciancia, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted January 29, 2002

On appeal from the Department of Corrections.

This is a prison disciplinary appeal. Emotion Blackwell, an inmate currently confined at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, appeals a final determination of the Department of Corrections (DOC) finding that he committed prohibited act .256, refusing to obey an order of any staff member, and prohibited act *.306, conduct that disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly running of the correctional facility, both in violation of N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1. We now reverse the final agency decision, in part because of inadequate findings by the DOC and in part because of an apparent lack of credible evidence to support the *.306 charge.

From the record before us we are able to ascertain the following. On November 3, 2000, inmates were participating in an Islamic prayer service in the "south compound visit hall" (SCVH). At the end of the service, the inmates were released back to living areas based upon geographic designation. Blackwell lived in the south compound, but did not leave when that area was called. He claims that he and another inmate were putting away prayer rugs and impliedly did not hear the call for south compound inmates. When he realized that he had missed the call, he exited when inmates from the north and west compounds were released. Blackwell apparently returned to the south compound without incident.

Blackwell was charged on November 4, 2000 with refusing to obey an order of any staff member, the .256 charge. On November 5, 2000, Blackwell was charged with conduct that disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly running of the correctional facility, the *.306 charge. As far as the record reveals, both charges were based solely upon the conduct previously described. Blackwell was found guilty of both charges after a courtline hearing. He appealed the decision to the prison administrator and it was affirmed by the assistant superintendent.

The DOC is not required to provide a verbatim record of disciplinary proceedings, McDonald v. Pinchak, 139 N.J. 188, 201- 202 (1995); Daley v. Department of Corrections, 331 N.J. Super. 344 (App. Div. 2000), and none is available to us in the present case. We also have only a limited recitation of what evidence was presented at that hearing. It appears Blackwell gave his version of events, and it may be that the charging officer, or perhaps an investigating officer, also gave a version of events. The disciplinary reports were apparently reviewed.

The disciplinary report charging the .256 infraction states, "[o]n the above date and approx. time I/M Blackwell, . . . was ordered to exit the S.C.V.H., said I/M refused and didn't exit the S.C.V.H. until the North and West compound was called out." The findings on that charge by the hearing officer are: "[b]ody of charge is supported by officers report, i/m failed to comply with order to move with right compound, H/O notes i/m's witness is same as person who wrote the charge, no evidence to discredit the officers report, all relied on to determine guilt."

The disciplinary report charging the *.306 infraction states, "Blackwell . . . did refuse . . . order to exit the s/c visit hall at the end of Islamic services . . . . I/M exited the visit hall with the north & west compound. I/M action interfere with the security & orderly running of the correctional facility." The findings on the *.306 charge by the hearing officer are: "[b]ody of charge is supported by officers report, officer has no reason to fabricate the charge, no evidence to discredit the officer report, support the i/m, all relied on to determine guilt."

As indicated, Blackwell appealed both adjudications to the prison administrator. As part of that appeal, defendant, through his designated inmate legal assistant, set forth a narrative of his position concerning both charges. In denying the appeal, the assistant superintendent stated, "[t]here was compliance with the New Jersey Administrative Code on inmate discipline which prescribes procedural safeguards. The decision of the Hearing Officer was based upon substantial evidence." There is no recitation of what that substantial evidence was.

It is now well-settled that prison inmates do not enjoy the full spectrum of due process rights, but such rights are to be abridged only to the extent necessary to accommodate the institutional needs and objectives of prisons. McDonald, supra, 139 N.J. at 194. Prisoners remain entitled to certain basic due process protections, Daley, supra, 331 N.J. Super. at 346, including a written statement of factfindings and a statement of reasons for the disciplinary action taken, unless providing that information would jeopardize institutional security. Avant v. Clifford, 67 N.J. 496, 533 (1975) (quoting with approval the New Jersey Standards on the Inmate Discipline Program and finding them "compatible with constitution and law").

More broadly, an agency's obligation to adequately set forth its rationale in support of a final determination is now beyond cavil:

However, when an administrative body renders a decision and fails to make adequate findings of fact and give an expression of reasoning which, when applied to the found facts, led to the conclusion below, the decision cannot stand. In N.J. Bell Tel. Co. v. ...


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