December 3, 2009
LEROY WIGGINS, APPELLANT,
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Department of Corrections.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 4, 2009
Before Judges Parrillo and Ashrafi.
Appellant Leroy Wiggins, an inmate currently incarcerated at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, appeals from the September 30, 2008 final administrative decision of the Department of Corrections (DOC) denying his request to create an Inmate Liaison Committee (ILC) pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10A:12-3.1. For the following reasons, we affirm.
On January 18, 2008, and again on April 15, 2008, a fellow inmate at East Jersey State Prison submitted a proposal to create an ILC to Thomas Power, the prison Administrator. Hearing no response, on August 29, 2008, appellant filed an Inmate Remedy System form inquiring about the status of the ILC proposal. That form was forwarded to the Administrator's office. On September 5, 2008, appellant was interviewed by Executive Assistant Administrator Steven Johnson, who informed him that the proposal was denied because the prison already utilized a Wing Representative Committee (WRC), composed of elected representatives from each prison wing, to provide the services and functions requested to be performed by an ILC. Thereafter, appellant filed an administrative appeal, which was denied on September 16, 2008, by the Prison Administrator, who concluded that "the Wing Representative Committee as it currently exists represents and serves all inmates adequately." Upon further administrative appeal to the Commissioner on September 30, 2008, the DOC's Director, Division of Operations, affirmed the decision of the Administrator, concluding that appellant's request was satisfactorily addressed by the Administrator, no further action was necessary, and "the current practice if [sic] utilizing an inmate representative from each wing is appropriate and will remain in effect."
On appeal, appellant contends:
I. THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS DENIAL OF INMATES' PROPOSAL FOR A LIAISON COMMITTEE TO REPRESENT THE PRISON POPULATION, VIOLATED THE NEW JERSEY ADMINISTRATIVE CODE, PURSUANT TO N.J.S.A. 30:1B-6 AND N.J.A.C. 10A:12-ET SEQ.
II. THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS INTERPRETATION OF NEW JERSEY ADMINISTRATIVE CODE REGARDING INMATES LIAISON COMMITTEE IS CONTRARY TO THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW, PURSUANT TO N.J.S.A. 52:14B-1 AND N.J.A.C. 10A:1-1.5(a).
As a threshold matter, we note that appellate courts have a limited role in reviewing the decisions of administrative agencies. We will not reverse an agency decision unless "'it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole.'" In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 657 (1999) (quoting Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980)); Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997). The relevant standard of review is "'whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record' considering 'the proofs as a whole'...." In re Taylor, supra, 158 N.J. at 656 (quoting Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964))).
The scope of our review of administrative regulations is also limited. Lewis ex rel. Lewis v. Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund Comm'n of State of N.J., 336 N.J. Super. 361, 369 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 168 N.J. 290 (2001). "Administrative regulations are accorded a presumption of validity." Ibid. (quoting N.J. State League of Municipalities v. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs, 158 N.J. 211, 222 (1999)). "The party challenging their validity bears the burden of proving that the regulations are arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or beyond the scope of the [agency's] delegated power." Ibid. (citations omitted). The "courts have a 'strong inclination to defer to agency action provided it is consistent with the legislative grant of power.'" In re Hartz/Damascus Bakery, Inc., 404 N.J. Super. 49, 68 (App. Div. 2008) (quoting Lewis, supra, 336 N.J. Super. at 369-70), certif. denied, 198 N.J. 315 (2009). Moreover, an administrative agency's interpretation of its enabling statute and implementing regulations is entitled to substantial deference. Probst v. Bd. of Educ., 127 N.J. 518, 529 (1992). This is so "particularly where the determination is not inconsistent with the statute and promotes its purpose and intent." Ibid. (citing Bassett v. Bd. of Educ., 223 N.J. Super. 136, 142-43 (App. Div. 1988)).
The Legislature has vested the DOC Commissioner broad discretionary power to "[d]etermine all matters of policy and regulate the administration of [penal] institutions...." N.J.S.A. 30:1B-6(g).
The Commissioner is specifically empowered to:
Formulate, adopt, issue and promulgate, in the name of the department such rules and regulations for the efficient conduct of the work and general administration of the department, the institutions or non-institutional agencies within its jurisdiction, its officers and employees as may be authorized by law[.] [N.J.S.A. 30:1B-6(e).]
Pursuant to this authority, the DOC promulgated regulations, in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act, N.J.S.A. 52:14B-1 to -15, see N.J.A.C. 10A:1-1.5(a), governing the creation, organization, and functioning of inmate groups within State correctional facilities. N.J.A.C. 10A:12-1.1. The Administrator or designee has the sole authority to "approve, disapprove or limit the formation and/or activities of an inmate group consistent with... internal management procedures regarding discipline, order, safety, sanitation and security." N.J.A.C. 10A:12-2.1(a). Thus, it is within the Administrator's broad discretion to determine both the form and functions of an inmate group, if any, allowable.
Prior to determining whether to approve or disapprove, the proposed inmate group*fn1 must identify itself by name and provide a statement of its mission or purpose. N.J.A.C. 10A:12-2.2(b)(1), (2). In this regard, an inmate group "shall provide a beneficial service to a portion of the general inmate population and/or the community." N.J.A.C. 10A:12-2.2(a). The group must also indicate "whether there is a similar group already operating within another correctional facility or within the community[.]" N.J.A.C. 10A:12-2.2(b)(2).
The request to establish an inmate group must be submitted in writing to the Administrator or designee, N.J.A.C. 10A:12-2.2(b), and include, in addition to the above requirements, the following:
3. A proposed plan for fulfilling the stated purpose or mission;
4. The types of activities the group will likely pursue, to include involvement with another group;
5. The benefits the group will provide to the inmate population;
6. The projected number of members and criteria for membership;
7. The anticipated need for resources;
8. The anticipated sources of resources;
9. The anticipated utilization of resources;
10. The anticipated frequency of group meetings;
11. A statement setting forth that any unspent funds shall be transferred to the Inmate Welfare Fund in the event the inmate group is terminated or dissolved;
12. A statement setting forth plans for the disposition of any acquired non-cash assets in the event the inmate group is terminated or dissolved;
13. A statement setting forth that all profits from concessions shall be deposited into the Inmate Welfare Fund; and
14. Information regarding inmate leadership positions, such as:
ii. Terms of office;
iii. Manner of election; and
iv. Other proposed organizational structure.
[N.J.A.C. 10A:12-2.2(b)(3) to (14).]
Moreover, the Administrator "may request clarification to determine the purpose or mission of the group...." N.J.A.C. 10A:12-2.1(b).
On this score, N.J.A.C. 10A:12-3.1(a) provides that "[a]n Inmate Liaison Committee may be established within each correctional facility...." (emphasis added). The function of the ILC would be to:
1. Act as a liaison between the correctional facility administration and the inmate population;
2. Provide the opportunity for inmates, through their representatives, to voice their comments and concerns on issues affecting the inmate population; and
3. Provide the opportunity for inmates, through their representatives, to submit information and recommendations on issues affecting the inmate population.
In addition, prison administration may utilize the ILC meetings to provide:
1. Information to the committee and the inmate population; and
2. Responses to previous issues or concerns that were brought to the attention of the administration.
In our view, these regulations strike the appropriate balance between prison management concerns and fairness to inmates. See Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 478, 115 S.Ct. 2293, 2297, 132 L.Ed. 2d 418, 426 (1995). We have previously recognized that State officials are given wide latitude in managing the "volatile" and "dangerous" environment of our prisons, and are correspondingly afforded "appropriate deference and flexibility." Blyther v. New Jersey Dep't of Corrections, 322 N.J. Super. 56, 65 (App. Div.) (citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 561-63, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 2977-78, 41 L.Ed. 2d 935, 954-55 (1974)), certif. denied, 162 N.J. 196 (1999). Indeed, "[i]nvolvement of the courts in the day-to-day management of prisons would squander judicial resources with little offsetting benefit to anyone." Blyther, supra, 322 N.J. Super. at 67. To this end, as noted, the Administrator retains the exclusive authority to "approve, disapprove or limit" the activities of inmate groups. N.J.A.C. 10A:12-2.1(a). Moreover, the Administrator has the authority to designate an alternative to any proposed ILC. N.J.A.C. 10A:12-3.6.
Here, appellant submitted a proposal for an ILC that he contends fully complied with administrative regulations. In his proposal, appellant represented that "[t]here are no other groups in East Jersey State Prison such as the [I]LC[,]" further contending that the "Wing Representatives are 'only' permitted to address issues that affect their respective wings,... [and] have no constitution or bylaws, therefore... [they] can not represent the prison population." Appellant essentially reiterates the same argument here, effectively contending that the presently functioning WRC, which is comprised of elected representatives from each prison wing, is not an adequate substitute for the proposed ILC. In support of this argument, appellant cites a litany of problems in the general population with each of the prison's departments, which supposedly have gone unremedied by the prison administration, and submits three affidavits, dated October 14, 2008, offering opinions on the perceived ineffectiveness of the current prisoner complaint apparatus.
Appellant has not shown that the WRC is not willing to represent the prison population or any portion thereof, or that it is incapable of providing a beneficial service to the inmate community. To the contrary, appellant acknowledges wing representatives are nominated by ballot and stand for annual election. No showing has been made why the proposed ILC will be more representative of the general population or more successful in obtaining remedies for their complaints than the extant WRC, which the Administrator determined "represents and serves all inmates adequately."
Rather, appellant questions the effectiveness of the WRC because it meets on a monthly basis and not all departments within the prison attend all of the Wing Representative meetings. However, N.J.A.C. 10A:12-3.4 only requires the ILC to meet once a month and does not require that all of the prison departments attend the meeting. Once again, appellant fails to explain why establishment of an ILC would increase the frequency or regularity of such meetings, especially since it remains within the Administrator's discretion to determine the appropriateness or necessity of any further meetings between the staff and prisoner committee, N.J.A.C. 10A:12-3.4, or better ensure a more favorable outcome to the prison population.
Lastly, appellant suggests there are no standards by which to review the propriety of the Administrator's choice of prisoner representation mechanisms. We have already set forth the governing standard. Suffice it to say, we do not have a proper factual record for review of his claims, and therefore, no demonstration why the Administrator's reliance on the WRC was arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, or in violation of either the enabling statute or implementing regulations.