AN OPEN LETTER FROM THE ESSEX COUNTY CORRECTIONAL OFFICERS UNION
I am contacting you on behalf of the Essex County Correctional Officers Association (ECCOA), the union that represents correctional officers and sergeants employed by the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, including at the Middleton Jail.
As you know, on Saturday, October 22, 2022, correctional officers in the Middleton facility responded to a melee involving at least seven inmates armed with edged weapons – known as shanks — in which multiple inmates and officers were injured.
The local media picked up on the story but based on Sheriff Coppinger’s statements in which he downplayed and diminished the event, the prevailing sentiment among the officers involved is that the incident was inaccurately reported to the public. The ECCOA would appreciate the opportunity to clarify some facts about the incident, and to provide additional context and insight into the alarming rise in inmate violence at the Middleton facility in recent years.
On October 22nd, correctional officers responded to an extremely violent melee involving at least seven inmates, four of whom are awaiting trial for murder. At least three shanks were utilized by the inmate combatants against other inmates and correctional staff. The responding officers – unarmed and outnumbered – had no choice but to attempt to immediately disarm the brawling inmates to prevent grievous or deadly injury.
Throughout that effort, the armed inmates were wildly swinging their shanks through the air, tearing one officer’s uniform, and very nearly maiming the responding K-9.
To describe the scene as chaos would be an understatement. Two of the four officers who first responded were injured and treated at the hospital. One veteran officer described the incident as the most terrifying situation of his entire career. Privately, officers have admitted to experiencing symptoms commonly associated with post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of the incident. Clearly, the facts do not reflect Sheriff Coppinger’s characterization of the incident as “nothing serious.”
Additionally, inmate violence in the Middleton facility occurs far more frequently than “on occasion,” as stated by Sheriff Coppinger to the media. The incident on October 22nd was by no means an isolated incident. Over the past twelve months, there have been six hundred fifty-eight (658) inmates charged with fighting, thirty-nine (39) inmate-on-staff assaults and eighty-four (84) inmates charged with possession of a weapon.
Significantly, yearly inmate-on-staff assaults have tripled since 2016.
In the view of those who actually interact with the inmate population, the Middleton Jail has been a pressure cooker for the last several years and the atmosphere is rapidly deteriorating. There are alarming staffing shortages and officers — especially young officers — are subjected to forced overtime (also known as “holds”) on a near-daily basis. Probationary officers are expected to work their first year without a weekend off. Between an emboldened inmate population and officer fatigue and burnout, morale is at an all-time low.
If you would like to further discuss the events of October 22nd, as well as the current general working conditions at the Middleton Jail, an ECCOA representative (and other officers involved) can provide a firsthand account of what occurred.
ECCOA EXECUTIVE BOARD ◊