TRENTON – Monmouth County Jail officers acted within their authority when they violently took down inmate Amit Bornstein in July 2010, a corrections expert hired by Monmouth County testified Thursday.
“There was an aggressively acting out prisoner who was challenging authority,” said Gary Hilton, former New Jersey corrections commissioner and a one-time director of corrections and youth services in Monmouth County.
He said Bornstein, who died after twice clashing with jail officers, was “powerful and aggressive and, in my judgment, the county authorities did what they had to do to control this particular prisoner.”
A federal court jury will determine whether officers acted within the law. As many as 10 officers were involved in restraining Bornstein, 22, who became upset after being denied permission to use his cellphone to arrange for someone to watch his younger brother, for whom he was the caregiver.
Hilton’s opinion was contrary to the view of Martin Horn, a corrections expert hired by Bornstein’s family in their wrongful death and negligence lawsuit. Horn testified Wednesday that the jailers used excessive force against Bornstein, who was being held for failure to appear, car burglaries and marijuana charges.
No criminal charges were filed in the case. Investigations by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office in 2010 both found the officers acted lawfully.
At stake now is whether officers violated Bornstein’s civil rights by using excessive force and whether the jail’s medical vendor, Correct Care Solutions LLC, was negligent in caring for him. His family claims the force and the inadequate care led to Bornstein’s death.
Attorneys for the defendants, who also include individual jailers, the jail and Monmouth County, say Bornstein’s death, while unfortunate, was caused by an undiagnosed heart disease. That opinion contradicted the view of forensic pathologist Michael Baden, the Bornstein family’s expert, who testified that the inmate died of asphyxia from the officers’ restraints, not heart disease.
An Asbury Park Press investigation first publicly exposed details of the July 29, 2010 clash between Bornstein and jailers, after reviewing hundreds of pages of documents, along with jail video.
The video shows a struggle in a hallway leading to holding cells as well as another struggle in an isolation cell, this after Bornstein was taken to the jail’s medical unit. Hilton said the force was justified.
Hilton said officers are allowed to do whatever they need to gain complete control of unruly inmates. And, depending on the circumstances, officers would have been appropriate to strike, punch or kick an inmate — all claims made by inmates who witnesses the clashes. One inmate told jurors: “They beat a puddle of blood out of that boy.”
“What is appropriate is what is needed to gain complete control. Theoretically, that could be 30 (punches). Theoretically, that could be one,” Hilton said.
“They could have sat on his head if they needed to control him.”
Hilton said the large number of officers used to control Bornstein was also appropriate. He called the tactic “overwhelming force,” which serves to quickly diffuse not only the situation at hand, but also to deter other inmates from acting out. “It shows a message of ‘You have no chance of winning. Period,'” he said.
“This is not a friendly little fuzzy game. It is a violation of law and has the potential to lead to broader prison unrest,” said Hilton. “Inmates need to perceive the staff has control of the facility no matter what they do.”
Without such control by officers, a jail can become undisciplined and potentially dangerous to staff, inmates and the greater community, and also heighten potential for escapes. Hilton said inmates have to follow all orders corrections officers give them and there are no negotiations allowed.
“A prison is not a democracy. Inmates have to do what they are told, when they are told and how they are told,” he said. “If they don’t like that arrangement, then stay out of jail.”
The only concession from Hilton: “There were places when (Bornstein) did not have to be dragged.”
He said officers were appropriate in leaving a “spit mask” on Bornstein when he was left alone in the isolation cell, known as a “constant watch” cell. Hilton said it would have been appropriate if officers felt Bornstein were going to spit on nurses or other officers who might have come in the cell.
That contradicted testimony from retired Lt. Thomas Bollaro, who was the watch commander the night Bornstein died. Bollaro said he saw no need for the spit mask because Bornstein would have been alone in the cell.
“In constant watch? Normally we wouldn’t,” he said.
Attorneys for Bornstein’s family rested their case Thursday. The jury is expected to hear from CCS’s medical expert Friday morning. Testimony will continue Monday from the medical examiner who conducted Bornstein’s autopsy as well as Monmouth County’s medical expert.
Also pending are motions from defense attorneys to dismiss the cases against Monmouth County and CCS. They say the plaintiffs did not present sufficient evidence to prove the claims under the law.
Susanne Cervenka: 732-643-4229; [email protected]
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