Corrections officers are the most likely to get injured at work – and not necessarily because of an altercation with an inmate — based on some numbers-crunching a law firm has done on reported New Jersey workplace casualties.
That’s not a huge shock nor that third place goes to a combined category of police and firefighters. People working in automobile retailing and repair had the second-highest injury rate in the state, the law firm estimates.
And in a region of the state with four prisons — three state prisons and a federal penitentiary — there’s a lot people in South Jersey in those dangerous roles.
Police Benevolent Association Local 105 represents state prison corrections offices, and it tracks member injuries. The local also represents New Jersey juvenile officers and Parole Board staff.
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Local 105 President William Sullivan said many physical features of some facilities are a source of staff getting hurt.
“Especially the older ones, where you have got to use keys for all the doors,” Sullivan said. “There’s no electronics, and there’s these big breakers you have got to pull.”
However, Sullivan said, inmate assaults on staff are up about 300 percent in the last few years. That includes not just fisticuffs but the use of “bodily fluids.”
The union faults a state law that changed the rules for keeping inmates in solitary confinement. The law passed in 2019 and was implemented in August 2021.
An incident spreadsheet from the union totaled 200 assaults in fiscal year 2021, including 70 bodily fluid incidents. The numbers rose the following year to 424 assaults with 180 bodily fluid incidents.
So far in fiscal year 2023, a period from last July through this January, there were 250 assaults in total with 143 using bodily fluids.
“A lot of the inmates want to be in their own cell, without a bunkie,” Sullivan said. “And that law, kind of, made it where you can’t do that anymore. So, one of the quickest ways to do it is to assault an officer. You know?”
Unfortunately, Sullivan said, when an inmate decides to punch, they usually “go for broke with it.”
“They make sure they do it in an area that there’s cameras,” Sullivan said. “They make sure that there’s other people around, so you get your punch in. Then, you lay down and put your hands behind your back. You know?”
Victor Bermudez, president of Police Benevolent Association 231 at the Cumberland County Jail, said finding ways to stay safe around many violent people is a daily exercise for officers.
“In the recent decade, the components of behavioral health and manmade drug introductions have contributed to the rise in assaults on inmates and officers alike,” Bermudez said. “We notice despondency among inmates unable to communicate their feelings with fewer inmates with the temperament to deal with their emotions.”
The N.J. Department of Corrections could not provide injury numbers strictly related to on-site incidents immediately, spokeswoman Amy Quinn said.
“New Jersey Department of Corrections officers are among the best trained and most professional law enforcement officers in the state, and for good reason,” Quinn said. “Each day, they face jobs that come with enormous challenges, including to their personal safety. The NJDOC reinforces their physical and mental health through best-in-the-nation training, robust workplace wellness initiatives, support systems and constant recruiting to further bolster our ranks. “
New Jersey prisons on average have had more than 10,000 inmates in the last few years. That is down from more than 12,000 for its fiscal year 2021.
The report was done for Ohio-based The Fitch Law Firm, using non-fatal injuries per 200 million hours worker or 100,000 full-time workers logging 40 hours per week.
The respective top three injury rates by job were: Corrections institutions, 12.8; automotive parts/accessories and tire stores, 11.5; and police protection, 10.4.
Joe Smith is a N.E. Philly native transplanted to South Jersey 36 years ago, keeping an eye now on government in South Jersey. He is a former editor and current senior staff writer for The Daily Journal in Vineland, Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, and the Burlington County Times.
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