Corrections has held an annual "family day" for inmates at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center for the past two decades, allowing relatives — including children — to visit incarcerated sex offenders.
Documents obtained by The Star-Ledger show authorities filed disciplinary charges against convicted sex offender Claudio Gonzalez for allegedly touching the niece of another inmate at this year’s event June 16.
The alleged victim was one of 116 children who attended family day along with 418 adult relatives, a department spokeswoman said. Thirty officers and other civilian staff members supervised the event while 210 inmates mingled with visitors outdoors in the prison yard, according to the department."The whole process has to be investigated. Was there a staff failure?" Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan asked. "The question is now being addressed."
Leaders of prison officers unions criticized the department for allowing family days at the center, which provides treatment to sex offenders — including pedophiles — determined to be "repetitive and compulsive."
Trent Norman, president of Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, which represents prison officers, said Corrections should prevent children from attending.
"You’re dealing with impulsive inmates," he said. "It’s dangerous to have children around impulsive individuals."
The prison is the state’s only one specifically designated for sex offenders. It holds about 680 inmates, some with mental illnesses. Two special treatment units for civilly committed sex offenders — those deemed too dangerous to be released once their prison terms end — are also nearby in Avenel.
Corrections officials said family days, which are held at three other prisons, help inmates stay connected with relatives, increasing their chance of success once they’re released.
"Since 95 percent of offenders will be released following the expiration of their sentences, maintaining familial bonds is a critical issue," spokeswoman Deirdre Fedkenheuer said.
Lanigan said the department will review the programs to make sure officials strike the right balance between promoting family ties and protecting the public."The practice of scheduling family day events within the prison facilities is being reviewed for operational effectiveness and efficiencies," he said. "Alternative incentive-based programs that will support familial relationships also are under review."
Martin Horn, a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who previously ran New York City’s prison system, said holding family day at a sex offender prison is too risky.
"You have to be doubly cautious," he said. "For a facility to take that on is to assume an enormous liability."
Gonzalez, a former Lacey Township resident, was 17 when he was arrested for having sex with a 12-year-old girl in 2004, according to Laura Pierro, a senior assistant prosecutor in Ocean County. He pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault in 2006, she said. Pierro said Gonzalez, now 23, was determined to be "repetitive and compulsive" and sent to the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center for therapy.During family day, no one came to visit Gonzalez so he joined a fellow inmate and his relatives, according to a disciplinary report. Fedkenheuer would not say whether inmates without visitors were allowed to attend family day events.
At one point, while the second inmate talked with his mother, Gonzalez brought the man’s two nieces to get Italian ices, according to a written statement the second inmate gave investigators. They were gone for about 20 minutes.
The following day the second inmate told authorities Gonzalez touched one of the girls, the report said. The inmate’s name is being withheld by The Star-Ledger to protect the identity of the alleged victim.
Gonzalez later told investigators he put his hand on the girl’s shoulder to "guide" her back to her family, according to the report. He said he only "accidentally brushed" her breast while walking.
The disciplinary charges against Gonzalez are unauthorized physical contact and assault, documents show. Middlesex County prosecutor spokesman Jim O’Neill would not say if there is an ongoing criminal investigation, but said no criminal charges have been filed against Gonzalez.
Fedkenheur said no officers are facing disciplinary charges in connection with family day. She said records from the past three years reveal no problems at previous events, adding that officials could not recall any issues in the years before that.
Gonzalez and the alleged victim’s uncle are still at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center, Fedkenheur said.
In his statement to investigators, the uncle sought to reassure authorities he wouldn’t take matters into his own hands.
"I know what Claudio did to my niece and I know it is true, but he don’t have to worry about me because my family and niece need me," he wrote. "I’ll just leave it to you and it will be taken care of."
"25% of all sex offenders re-offend within 15 years"
"On average most sex offenders are never caught again for a new sex offense, after five years, between 10 and 15 percent of sex offenders are detected, often convicted, of committing a new sex offense. If you follow them for ten years the rates go up somewhat, if you follow them as long as we’ve been able to follow them, which is about 20 years, the rates go up to somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of the total sample will eventually be caught for a new sex offense."Dr. R. Karl Hansen