June 04, 2008

Devanney allowed to escape responsibility

It was Senator Raymond Lesniak’s nephew, the appointed county manager, George Devanney who rejected a bid to install about 500 cameras in the Union County jail back in the day, and he is the only county employee to escape punishment, or even public scrutiny, for the systematic problems at the jail which festered for years under his watch and was revealed in an international news media frenzy when two prisoners were allowed to literally “drop out” of the facility last December.

It haunts me that a young corrections officer, Rudy Zurick, needlessly died in connection with the county’s handling of the escapes. It was a tragedy that the young father had to fend for himself when the county purposely threw the spotlight on him and brought down what turned out to be an unbearable media frenzy.

The county immediately released a note from one escape which taunted Zurick and thanked him for helping them escape. Rudolph Zurick’s attorney stated in a Ledger article regarding the note left by the escapees -- his client was not involved and does not deserve punishment. "He was not there during the time of the escape," attorney Michael Mitzner said. "With all the publicity, it's not a fun time for him. He did not do anything wrong."

In the tense days after the escape, Zurick, 40, shot himself to death in his home on Jan. 2, hours before he was to give a statement to authorities.

I hope Zurick’s family will find a way to sue the county. The county never allows me to talk about lawsuits filed against them during public meetings. Claiming that it’s ‘just allegations’ they try and shut me up, I have it all on film. Yet when world media shined a light on Union County after the jailbreaks it took them a hot minute to cough up that note written by prisoners to deflect attention away from management. Where are the corrections officers on this? Why are your unions allowing this outrage to go unpunished? What happened to not commenting on investigations? What happened to not commenting on personnel matters? What happened to innocent until proven guilty?

Today’s Star-Ledger reports that the five corrections officers and supervisors who were on duty in December when the two inmates tunneled their way out of the Union County jail are returning to work after their bosses agreed to impose six-month suspensions instead of outright dismissals. The five men -- two corrections officers and three sergeants -- worked out the deal that allowed them to keep their jobs and pensions.

All of the men were on duty during the overnight hours of Dec. 14, when Otis Blunt and Jose Espinosa escaped. The inmates had spent weeks chipping through cinder blocks between their cells and to an outside wall. Their disappearance was not detected until dinnertime Dec. 15.

The escapes showcased deficiencies at the jail and prompted the county to make wholesale changes. Cameras were installed, inside and outside. Additional razor wire now rings the facility.

Director Frank Crose, who had overseen the jail since 2001 was reassigned after the jailbreaks and subsequently retired, but it was Frank Crose who wanted the cameras installed and prepared the original bid for the purchase and installation which Devanney rejected under pressure from the Corrections Officer’s Union, who didn’t want cameras installed. I suspect that’s what shut them up about Zurick being thrown to the media.

Crose’s top aid, deputy assistant director James Dougherty, was fired as a result of the jailbreaks. But Dougherty wasn’t in charge of the day to day operations of the jail; he was an administrator whose duties included disciplining corrections officers.

Frank Crose reported to public safety director Harold Gibson, Gibson has also retired since the December jailbreaks.

The media and the county allowed the buck to stop at Harold Gibson, but Gibson reported to Devanney. Devanney is ultimately responsible for all county operations. That is why he was able to reject the bid to install the cameras.

In today’s Ledger article regarding the five corrections officers and supervisors who are being allowed to return to duty at the Jail Union County Manager George Devanney said it was a difficult decision to make.

"The harder decision was to settle this case and bring them back," Devanney said. "The easy decision was to fight this to the end."

That’s a pretty arrogant statement considering the facts of the matter which are the County Manager is ultimately responsible for the jail, and he was the only person not held accountable for the “systematic problems that festered for years”. He also didn’t protect his employee, Rudy Zurick, who took all the media heat off of Devanney.

Star Ledger coverage on the jailbreak to date