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Darryl V. Conquest v. New Jersey Department of Corrections


December 6, 2012


On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.


Submitted January 30, 2012 - Decided Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez and Ashrafi.

Inmate Darryl V. Conquest appeals from a final decision of the Department of Corrections (DOC) retaining his status in the Management Control Unit (MCU) of his prison. We affirm.

Conquest is now sixty-two years old. He has spent most of his adult life in prison. He has been serving two consecutive life terms for murder since 1976. During the initial years of his confinement on the murder charges, he had numerous disciplinary infractions. Prison officials designated him a serious security risk to the prison staff and population because of his activities as a leader and instigator of prison violence and disruption. He was transferred twice to other states for security purposes to serve his sentence under interstate compacts, but he was eventually returned to New Jersey by both receiving states.

Upon his return in December 1995, Conquest was assigned to MCU, where he must spend more than twenty-three hours of each day confined to his cell. Quarterly reviews of his status and more formal annual reviews have been conducted since his initial assignment. The MCU Review Committee has consistently recommended against his release to the general prison population. On this appeal, Conquest challenges the adequacy of evidence supporting the Review Committee's decision of November 24, 2010, to retain him in MCU, and he also challenges as procedurally flawed the DOC's confirmation of that decision.

N.J.A.C. 10A:5-1.3 defines "Management Control Unit" as "a close custody unit to which an inmate may be assigned if the inmate poses a substantial threat to the safety of others; of damage to or destruction of property; or of interrupting the operation of a State correctional facility." When assigning an inmate to MCU, the DOC must consider the following factors:

1. Disciplinary records during the inmate's present term of confinement and any previous terms served. Weight shall be assigned to this criterion where there are a substantial number of minor charges, or one or more charges of a serious nature;

2. Past criminal offenses, including those for which incarcerated, which indicate the capability and propensity to commit or precipitate serious acts of disruption or violence;

3. Number and location of previous institutionalizations including the disciplinary records, progress reports, classification reports, or any other records which indicate involvement in serious misbehavior;

4. Reports by professional staff (for example, psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists);

5. Reports indicating present involvement in criminal activities in the community or within the correctional facility;

6. Evidence of an attitude which indicates an unwillingness to follow rules and obey orders;

7. Inability to maintain a satisfactory work record as indicated in reports by work supervisors and/or frequency of job changes;

8. Information indicating unsatisfactory adjustment to, or performance in, treatment or rehabilitative programs; and

9. Evidence of the inmate's inability or unwillingness to house with other inmates in a nondisruptive and nondestructive manner. [N.J.A.C. 10A:5-2.4.]

At the time that Conquest was assigned to MCU in 1996, the DOC relied on extensive documented evidence of his disciplinary infractions and disruptive activity. From 1976 to 1987, prison officials filed forty-three disciplinary charges against Conquest, including charges of assault with a weapon and engaging in a group demonstration. Confidential informants reported that Conquest was using his influence as chairman of the Prisoners' Representative Committee to incite other inmates to engage in violent behavior. He was removed from the chairmanship of that committee in 1984. He then conspired to murder other members of the committee so that he could resume his influence over inmates. As a result of that conspiracy, an inmate was stabbed and injured in October 1987.

The DOC transferred Conquest to the Florida Department of Corrections in 1987 under an interstate compact for exchange of prisoners. While serving his sentence in a Florida prison, Conquest was charged with eight disciplinary infractions, and he spent ten months in administrative segregation. Before Florida returned him to New Jersey for disruptive behavior, Conquest wrote a "communique" in which he described himself as a political prisoner and encouraged "armed struggle."

Immediately upon his return from Florida in 1992, Conquest was transferred to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. While in Pennsylvania, he was charged with three disciplinary offenses, and prison officials there classified him as an extreme security risk. They believed him to be a mentor to prison gang members despite his being housed in a restricted unit. In August 1995, a major disturbance occurred in the Pennsylvania prison. Conquest was not charged with participating in the disturbance, but Pennsylvania officials received information that he had engaged in behind-the-scenes manipulation of other inmates to incite the disruption. Pennsylvania returned him to New Jersey in late 1995.

In March 1996, the Review Committee recommended that Conquest be assigned to MCU, citing the information we have outlined, as well as the nature of the charges for which he was serving two life terms and Conquest's responsive submissions to the Committee. In the first few years in MCU following his return to New Jersey, Conquest incurred additional disciplinary charges, including destroying government property and possession of a weapon.

Applicable DOC regulations require a review of MCU status every three months, N.J.A.C. 10A:5-2.10, and a more formal review annually to determine whether an inmate should be released from MCU status, N.J.A.C. 10A:5-2.11. Although our record does not include the results of the routine three-month and annual reviews over the years, the Review Committee apparently conducted such hearings and declined each time to release Conquest to the general population. On a prior appeal that Conquest filed from an annual review of his status, we affirmed the Review Committee's decision without a written discussion of its findings and conclusions. Conquest v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., Docket No. A-2243-05 (App. Div. March 6, 2007) (citing R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D)). The appeal before us now is from a similar decision of the Review Committee on November 24, 2010.

DOC regulations provide that, at the annual review hearing:

The inmate has the initial burden of demonstrating at this review, that the inmate has:

1. Participated in the required programs, jobs, educational and recreational programs afforded the inmate pursuant to this section;

2. Complied with the criteria detailed by the [Review Committee];

3. Remained free from prohibited acts preceded by an asterisk for the program year; and

4. Agreed to reaffirm the obligation to adhere to the rules and regulations for inmate behavior, as described in the Handbook on Discipline and correctional facility inmate handbooks. [N.J.A.C. 10A:5-2.11(b).]

Conquest contends that he met these criteria, and the Review Committee so found. The DOC argues, however, that the Review Committee appropriately exercised its discretionary authority in determining to retain Conquest in MCU status.

At the annual review hearing, the DOC has the burden of proving that an inmate should not be released from MCU status. DOC regulations provide:

If the inmate demonstrates participation and compliance in accordance with (b) above, the inmate will be considered for release from the M.C.U. and the inmate will be released unless the Department of Corrections can demonstrate through substantial evidence, including behavior, correctional facility adjustment, and disciplinary history that the inmate continues to pose an identifiable threat:

1. To the safety of others;

2. Of damage to, or destruction of property; or

3. Of interrupting the secure and/or orderly operation of a State correctional facility. [N.J.A.C. 10A:5-2.11(c).]

The Review Committee concluded that Conquest's "prior actions" and his "history of institutional violence" continued to "pose a threat to the safety and security of [the] correctional facility."

While it is true that many years have passed since Conquest's last prison infractions, "if substantial credible evidence supports an agency's conclusion, a court may not substitute its own judgment for the agency's even though the court might have reached a different result." Greenwood v. State Police Training Ctr., 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992). We must defer to the expertise of prison officials in assessing the security needs of their institution. Blyther v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 322 N.J. Super. 56, 65 (App. Div.) ("Prisons are dangerous places. The courts must afford appropriate deference and flexibility to State officials trying to manage a volatile environment."), certif. denied, 162 N.J. 196 (1999).

We may reverse the decision of an administrative agency only if it is arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 657 (1999); Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980). Here, because of Conquest's history of disciplinary infractions, his role in leading other inmates to commit violence, his involvement in a conspiracy to murder other inmates, and his inability to alter his behavior despite transfer to different prison settings, substantial evidence supports the Review Committee's determination to retain him in MCU status at this time.

Conquest also argues procedural impropriety in the DOC's handling of his administrative appeal of the Review Committee's determination. Although his administrative appeal was not addressed promptly, the DOC eventually confirmed the Review Committee's recommendation by memorandum decision dated June 13, 2011, and a supplemental memorandum dated August 12, 2011.



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