Right now in New Jersey if a corrections officer or a juvenile detention officer is seriously injured from a prison riot or inmate attack and cannot work, the officer does not receive any salary while waiting for worker’s compensation to kick in, which can take months.

Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex) is sponsoring a measure that calls for the injured officer to get a full salary until worker's compensation payments begin. The bill also stipulates the officer would be entitled to supplemental payments that, when combined with worker’s comp, would equal the regular salary.

“This is not a situation where you have a workplace accident that may occur, this is not an accident, these are crimes being committed against these employees and we want to make sure the state is there to stand behind them when they’re injured,” Benson said.

He stressed it’s critically important that “when they’re injured on the job because of a vicious attack, that they’re made whole."

Benson said this is extremely important now, when prisons are being consolidated and reforms are being implemented because many prisoners serving time are more violent and dangerous than they used to be.

“We know there’s additional risk to this job, but that doesn’t mean a person should fear going to work one day, not knowing whether they’re going to come home and be able to take care of their family," he said. “We want to make sure that we have their backs because they have ours every single day when they go to work.”

Andrea Berry, a corrections officer at Southern State prison, tried to help her partner, who was struggling with an inmate, when she was attacked and punched multiple times until being knocked unconscious.

She said she’s still in pain from the attack a month ago, and she’s still waiting for worker’s comp to begin. Until then, she has no salary or benefits.

“I deal with the physical pain every day, so that’s on a physical level, and then the mental pain separate as well,” she said.

Andrea Berry, center, a corrections officer at Southern State prison discusses her injuries during a press conference Monday. (David Matthau, NJ 101.5)
Andrea Berry, center, a corrections officer at Southern State prison, discusses her injuries during a press conference Monday. (David Matthau, NJ 101.5)

Berry said she will now be required to hand over a check to her human resources department “for a portion of my medical benefits so I can continue to protect my family, and to keep my husband and my 7 and 6-year-old, keep them with medical insurance.”

Lance Lopez, president of the corrections officers union, PBA Local 105, said there isn’t adequate staff when an officer is attacked and injured, and other guards should be brought in, but unfortunately there isn’t the manpower to do it.

Berry said when she was attacked, she radioed for help but it seemed like a long time before anyone responded and she was afraid no one heard her call for assistance.

She added she doesn’t know if any bones in her face are broken because they’re still waiting for worker’s comp to approve an MRI.

“Thirteen years ago when I became a corrections officer, I signed onto a completely different ballgame back then, where I was compensated if I got hurt and I didn’t have to worry about my pension being frozen, which it is now,” she said.

“It’s crazy that this benefit isn’t here already, that they have to wait, that they have to pay out of their own pocket just to make sure their own children have health insurance,” said Benson. “This is about compassion, there’s no reward for an injury here, this is not a slip and fall case, this is not fraud and abuse, this is about humanity.”