Former inmates sue Passaic County Jail over alleged abuse and abhorrent conditions

Three former inmates are suing the Passaic County Jail, its warden and the county sheriff over a litany of alleged abuses they endured during their incarceration, including discrimination, negligence and a sexual assault by a former corrections officer.

The lawsuits also claim abhorrent conditions within the 64-year-old compound: Black mold was ubiquitous, the cells had no heat in the winter, the showers were scorching hot and sewage backed up into the cells, among other things.

"The conditions were horrible, and no human should have been subjected to them," said Andrew B. Smith, the Summit attorney who filed the suits last week in state Superior Court in Paterson, on behalf of former inmates Tyrone Hendley, Jalessa Dennison and Tyshona Kennedy. "We want justice," Smith said. "And somebody's got to be held accountable."

Allegations of mistreatment amid a decrepit backdrop are a story familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the jail's history. And they come just as Passaic County officials begin shuttering the infamous Marshall Street lockup and sending its inmates to the newer, less-crowded jail in Hackensack as part of a deal with Bergen County.

Fewer than 140 inmates remained at the jail on Tuesday, county officials said. About 565 have already been sent to Bergen, with another 23 female inmates sent to Hudson.

Long prone to chronic overcrowding, the Passaic County Jail has often been the target of lawsuits that claimed it was unsanitary, rodent-infested and dangerous. One 2008 class-action lawsuit called its conditions "an affront to human decency."

Jail officials say they've made headway in correcting the issues the lawsuits highlighted.

Bill Maer, a spokesman for Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik, said last September that the facility has had "nearly impeccable inspections from state regulators over the last several years."

The Passaic County Jail on September 15, 2021.
The Passaic County Jail on September 15, 2021.

But the new allegations raise the specter of the jail's bad old days, when inmates suffered broiling heat in the summer, arctic cold in the winter and corrections officers who allegedly beat them in hidden nooks away from security cameras.

Albert Buglione, Berdnik's personal attorney, said Tuesday that Berdnik was offended by the allegations, which he called "baseless and without merit."

"It's so contrary to the manner in which [Berdnik] conducts himself and the manner in which he operates the sheriff's department," Buglione said. "He has never condoned inappropriate or improper conduct by members of the staff against the public or those who are incarcerated ... he feels he's been defamed."

Buglione also disputed the notion that inmates still live in squalid conditions. The jail isn't overcrowded anymore, he said, and its administrators have worked hard to comply with the regulations governing them.

"It seems like someone is reading old press clippings and repeating them," Buglione said.

A spokesman for the Passaic County government declined to comment on pending litigation, as did a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Corrections. The lawsuit named both as defendants.

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The suits also listed as a defendant former state Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, who could not be reached for comment.

Two of the plaintiffs, Dennison and Hendley, are still incarcerated. Kennedy has been released and is living in Newark, according to that suit.

All three are seeking compensatory damages, attorneys' fees, punitive damages and other relief, the lawsuits said.

The allegations

In her suit, Dennison claimed that a former corrections officer “repeatedly sexually assaulted” her from December 2020 to March 2021.

The officer allegedly watched Dennison shower, kissed her without her consent and touched her inappropriately, the suit said.

This included a Jan. 13, 2021, incident in which the officer allegedly pulled Dennison out of the visitation room, “put her hand over plaintiff’s mouth, pulled plaintiff’s pants down" and groped her "while plaintiff cried.”

“These actions were an abuse of process, an abuse of power and authority, and violative of proper procedure, custom, practice and policy,” the lawsuit read.

The Passaic County Jail on September 15, 2021.
The Passaic County Jail on September 15, 2021.

Dennison was scared to report the abuse because she feared retaliation, the lawsuit said. But other inmates reported it, and Dennison backed up their claims.

The officer was fired in March 2021, the lawsuit said. And Dennison was sent to Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.

Hendley, another inmate, said in his lawsuit that he contracted COVID-19 twice during his 14-month stay at the jail, which ended Jan. 31. The first time nearly killed him, he said. And the jail’s medical staff allegedly did nothing to help.

“Plaintiff was provided with no medical care; no medications were given to him and he was simply kept in the quarantine without any care whatsoever,” the suit said. “The quarantine conditions were even more inhumane than the conditions in general population.”

He blamed his sickness on corrections officers and others who worked in the jail but did not wear the personal protective gear recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He continues to have COVID-related health issues to this day, the lawsuit said.

The third inmate, Kennedy, alleged the same mistreatment as the others — no heat in her cell during the winter, showers that were either freezing or scorching, and mold throughout the building.

She also said a male corrections officer walked into the shower area while she was naked on Jan. 6, 2021, to tell her she had to switch housing units, the lawsuit said.

“This violation of plaintiff’s privacy by a male officer constitutes sexual harassment and caused her embarrassment and mental distress,” the lawsuit said.

She also said she was discriminated against during work details because she is Black and that corrections officers unfairly favored other inmates. She said her reports of abuse were not properly investigated.

Hendley, Dennison and Kennedy all claim in their suits that the jail, the sheriff and others violated the New Jersey Constitution and the state’s Civil Rights Act. They also claim negligence and abuse of process.

Dennison has claimed assault and violations of the state's law against discrimination and harassment. Kennedy also claimed officials violated the state law against discrimination, among other things.

Steve Janoski covers law enforcement for For unlimited access to the most important news about those who safeguard your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @stevejanoski

This article originally appeared on Passaic County Jail NJ: Lawsuit claims abuse, poor conditions