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Jones v. Dep't of Corrections


November 10, 2010


On appeal from a Final Agency Decision of the Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.


Submitted September 28, 2010

Before Judges Carchman and Messano.

Isaac Jones appeals from the final decision of the Department of Corrections (DOC) adjudicating him guilty of committing prohibited act *.011, "possession or exhibition of anything related to a security threat group." See N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1(a).*fn1 We have considered the arguments raised and affirm.

On May 29, 2009, Jones was an inmate at Bayside State Prison. During a routine search of his cell, officers discovered various letters and envelopes in his locker believed to be related to gang activity. On May 30, DOC served its disciplinary charge upon Jones, and he was placed in pre-hearing detention. On June 1, Senior Investigator Matthew J. Clark of the Special Investigations Division (SID), an expert in gang activity, reviewed the material and concluded it was related to a security threat group, specifically, the "Blood[s]." After two delays required by additional investigation, a disciplinary hearing was conducted on June 4.

Represented by counsel substitute, Jones explained that he had discovered his "teenage son was involved with a gang," and the documents reflected his attempt to "reach[] out to others to try to secure his [son's] extrication from the group." Counsel substitute argued that Jones's conduct was "a technical violation at best." The hearing officer reviewed the actual documents to see if they were "consistent" with this explanation, but determined that there was neither "content nor context for such a conclusion." The hearing officer accepted Clark's opinion regarding the documents and determined the charge was "sufficiently substantiated." He imposed various sanctions, including 15 days detention with credit for time served, loss of 365 days of commutation credit, 365 days of administrative segregation, and loss of recreation privileges for 30 days.

Jones's administrative appeal sought leniency. He expressed remorse for this "technical mishap," and requested "a moderate decision" regarding the sanctions imposed. The associate administrator of the facility upheld the decision of the hearing officer, and determined "the sanction[s] imposed w[ere] proportionate to the offense." This appeal followed.

Specifically citing N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.7 and 10A:4-9.8, Jones contends that DOC "violated [his] procedural due process [rights]" by delaying the hearing. Citing N.J.A.C. 10A:18-2.16, he also contends that DOC was not permitted to read his mail without prior authorization from the prison administrator. Jones further claims that the sanctions imposed were excessive.

In his reply brief, Jones also argues that DOC's decision was not supported by "substantial credible evidence."

Our review of agency action is limited. "An appellate court ordinarily will reverse the decision of an administrative agency only when the agency's decision is 'arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or [] is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole.'" Ramirez v. Dep't of Corr., 382 N.J. Super. 18, 23 (App. Div. 2005) (quoting Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980)). Furthermore, "'[a]n administrative agency's interpretation of statutes and regulations within its implementing and enforcing responsibility is ordinarily entitled to our deference.'" Wnuck v. N.J. Div. of Motor Vehicles, 337 N.J. Super. 52, 56 (App. Div. 2001) (quoting In re Appeal by Progressive Cas. Ins. Co., 307 N.J. Super. 93, 102 (App. Div. 1997)).

Jones did not raise the procedural argument regarding the delay in his disciplinary hearing or challenge the seizure of the correspondence during the administrative proceedings. See Nieder v. Royal Indem. Ins. Co., 62 N.J. 229, 234 (1973) (noting "appellate courts will decline to consider questions or issues not properly presented" below). We accept that his explanation of the documents offered at the hearing was a challenge to DOC's interpretation of the letters and envelopes, and, in that sense, he contested the sufficiency of the evidence against him; Jones also challenged the sanctions imposed. After a thorough review of the record, however, we are convinced that Jones was accorded his full panoply of due process rights, that DOC did not violate its own regulations, that the agency's decision was supported by substantial credible evidence, and that the sanctions imposed were within the broad discretion afforded DOC.

Inmates confined to pre-hearing detention are entitled to a disciplinary hearing "within three calendar days," though "reasonable postponements" are permitted. N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.8(c). Hearings that are already postponed for further investigation shall be reviewed within 48 hours "to determine if an additional postponement is warranted." N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.7(a)(1). "The failure to adhere to any of the time limits[,] [however] . . . shall not mandate the dismissal of a disciplinary charge." N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.9(a).

Here, the disciplinary charges were served on May 30, and the initial disciplinary hearing was scheduled for June 1. The hearing officer subsequently noted that the adjournments to June 2, and then to June 4, were required by the "need [for] SID evidence assessment." We conclude that the regulations permit such flexibility under these circumstances and that Jones's due process rights were not violated in this regard.

Jones claims that N.J.A.C. 10A:18-2.16 prohibited the seizure of his mail without prior authorization by the prison administrator. Actually, that regulation addresses the procedure to be employed "[w]hen correspondence violates one of the categories cited in N.J.A.C. 10A:18-2.14 and is withheld in the mail room . . . ." (Emphasis added). N.J.A.C. 10A:18-2.14(a) provides that correspondence may be "taken from an inmate's possession by the correctional . . . custody staff if it falls within one of" a number of prohibited categories, including "[a]nything that might pose a threat to the safety, security or orderly operation of the correctional facility." Thus, the argument that the letters and envelopes were seized in violation of DOC's regulations lacks merit.

DOC's regulations require that a "finding of guilt at a disciplinary hearing . . . be based upon substantial evidence that the inmate has committed a prohibited act." N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.15(a). "Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Figueroa v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 414 N.J. Super. 186, 192 (App. Div. 2010) (quotation omitted). Here, Clark concluded that a number of words and phrases contained in the letters and envelopes found in Jones's locker were coded terms used by the Bloods. The explanation offered by Jones did not directly contradict those conclusions. In short, the conclusion that Jones had committed disciplinary violation *.011 was proven by substantial evidence.

Lastly, the sanctions imposed upon Jones were the maximum permissible under N.J.A.C. 10A:4-5.1(a). We have noted in the past that the Legislature has provided for the broad exercise of DOC's discretion in all matters regarding the administration of a prison facility, including disciplinary infractions by prisoners. See Russo v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 324 N.J. Super. 576, 583 (App. Div. 1999). We find no basis to disturb the sanctions imposed in this case.


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