September 17, 2012
ANTHONY HARDAWAY, APPELLANT,
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Corrections.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 9, 2012
Before Judges Cuff and St. John.
Anthony Hardaway, an inmate at the East Jersey State Prison (EJSP), Rahway, appeals from the April 20, 2011 final decision of the Department of Corrections (DOC) continuing his custody level as gang-minimum.
Defendant is serving a mandatory thirty-year sentence for murder, without the possibility of parole, and has several months left on his sentence. Defendant submitted a Remedy Systems Form seeking a reduction in custody status from gang-minimum to full-minimum. His request was denied "due to the nature of [his] current offense," citing N.J.A.C. 10A:9-4.5. Defendant appealed and sought an exemption under N.J.A.C. 10A:1-2.4 from strict compliance. He contended that the denial of full-minimum status caused him undue hardship in his attempt to prepare himself for reentering society. He requested full-minimum custody status "inside-only." He argued that this was appropriate since he did not want to transfer to another prison in order to pursue his full-minimum custody status.
The Institutional Classification Committee (ICC) denied his request, stating that there is "no inside-only" full-minimum status at EJSP. He wrote to EJSP Acting Administrator seeking reconsideration and also wrote to the Commissioner seeking review of his administrative appeal. On March 30, 2011, the ICC conducted a second review and again denied his request. On April 19, 2011, defendant wrote a second letter to the Commissioner stating that he was appealing the final agency decision rendered on March 30, 2011 to us.
On April 20, 2011, the ICC issued its final decision explaining that EJSP has no full-minimum work opportunity inside the facility and that gang-minimum receives the same full credits as full-minimum. They also explained that full-minimum inmates do not house inside the facility because of interaction with the public. This appeal followed.
Defendant raises the following point on appeal:
THE FINAL AGENCY DECISION TO DENY HARDAWAY FULL-MINIMUM CUSTODY STATUS SOLELY BECAUSE OF THE NATURE OF HIS OFFENSE VIOLATES THE HOLDING IN SMITH v. DOC, 346 N.J. SUPER. 24 (APP. DIV. 2001) AND SHOULD BE REVERSED AND REMANDED FOR A PROPER STATUS REVIEW.
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. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 382 N.J. Super. 18, 23 (App. Div. 2005) (alteration in original) (quoting Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980)). Furthermore, "[i]t is settled that '[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)). We have noted in the past that the Legislature has provided for the broad exercise of the DOC's discretion in all matters regarding the administration of a prison facility. Russo v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 324 N.J. Super. 576, 583 (App. Div. 1999).
Neither the United States Constitution, nor our Constitution, recognizes a right to a less restrictive custody status. Smith v. N.J. Dep't. of Corr., 346 N.J. Super. 24, 29 (App. Div. 2001) (citing Jenkins v. Fauver, 108 N.J. 239, 249 (1987)). As we further observed:
[U]nder State law, the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections has complete discretion in determining an inmate's place of confinement, N.J.S.A. 30:4-91.2. See Hluchan v. Fauver, 480 F. Supp. 103, 108 (D.N.J. 1979) (observing that inmates have no liberty right to be assigned to any particular custody level); . . . . Classification of prisoners and the decision as to what privileges they will receive rests solely within the discretion of the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections. N.J.S.A. 30:1B-6; N.J.S.A. 30:4-91.1. [Id. at 29-30 (citation and quotations omitted).]
The New Jersey State Prison system is maintained and operated by the DOC, N.J.S.A. 30:1B-8, which is headed by the Commissioner of Corrections. N.J.S.A. 30:1B-4. Classification and transfer of state prisoners is confined to the Commissioner's sole discretion. N.J.S.A. 30:1B-6; 30-1B-9; 30:4-91.1; 30:4-91.2; 30:4-91.3; and 30:4-92. Pursuant to his authority, the Commissioner created ICCs for each institution to assign and reassign inmates to specific custody levels.*fn1
"Basic to the resolution of any proceeding seeking review of prison administrative action is the legal principle that courts will not interfere with the internal administration of the institution, absent action by the prison authorities which deprives an inmate of his constitutional rights or is clearly capricious or arbitrary." State v. Rydzewski, 112 N.J. Super. 517, 521 (App. Div. 1970). Inmates in correctional facilities do not have a constitutionally protected liberty interest in a reduced custody status. Smith, supra, 346 N.J. Super. at 29; See also White v. Fauver, 219 N.J. Super. 170, 178 (App. Div.), modified sub nom., Jenkins v. Fauver, 108 N.J. 239 (1987). Accordingly, the Commissioner of the DOC has considerable discretion in determining the custody status of inmates. Smith, supra, 346 N.J. Super. at 29. Moreover, "under New Jersey law, a reduction in custody status is a matter of privilege, not of right." Id. at 30 (citing N.J.A.C. 10A:9-4.2). Although an inmate has no constitutionally protected right to a reduced custody status, we have not hesitated "to strike down arbitrary action" and have insisted upon "procedural fairness in the administrative process." White, supra, 219 N.J. Super. at 180.
Given defendant's reluctance to transfer to another facility which would afford him full-minimum status, and our standard of review of the discretionary acts of the DOC, we see no reason to disturb the agency's decision denying defendant's request for "inside-only" full-minimum status.