Shore prison probing commissary thievery

December 17, 1992|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer

Seven inmates at the Eastern Correctional Institution were placed in isolation yesterday, as investigators launched a probe into alleged financial improprieties at the Somerset County prison commissary, correction officials confirmed.

A prison source said investigators also planned to question correctional officers at the institution about apparent thefts of goods and money from the commissary operation, but a spokesman for the Division of Correction said he had no knowledge of that aspect of the probe.

Asked if anyone other than the seven inmates may have been involved in the alleged improprieties, the spokesman, Leonard A. Sipes Jr., said, "At this stage of the investigation, no."

The inmates were put in administrative segregation "for investigative purposes only" and will be questioned by officers from the Division of Correction's internal investigation unit, Mr. Sipes said.

"When the investigation is complete, they'll be returned to the general population," Mr. Sipes said.

The inmates will be held no longer than 96 hours -- four days -- he said.

The prison source said all seven inmates were assigned to the commmissary, but Mr. Sipes said he could not confirm that information.

Early yesterday afternoon Mr. Sipes said that ECI Warden Kenneth Taylor had told him that the probe was "a minor incident" consisting of "a preliminary investigation, centering on one inmate."

Mr. Sipes subsequently said that the warden had called him later to confirm that seven inmates had been placed in administrative segregation.

Mr. Sipes said the commissary would remain open and that the prison was not "locked down" -- a condition where inmates are not allowed out of their cells.

The prison commissary -- which is overseen by state workers but is staffed by inmates -- "sells" a variety of items such as cigarettes, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, candy and snacks that are not provided prisoners by the state, Mr. Sipes said.

Since cash is considered prison contraband, the cost of the items is deducted from the inmates' "bank accounts."

Money to cover the cost of incidentals can be earned by inmates performing prison jobs at a pay rate of $1 to $2 a day. Cash also can be placed in those accounts by inmates' relatives and friends.

Profits from the commissary operation benefit the Inmate Welfare Fund, the proceeds from which inmates decide how to spend. Earlier this year, money from ECI's fund paid for a men's softball team that dresses in women's clothing -- the California Cuties -- to entertain the prison's inmates.

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