New Jersey Department of Corrections officials were liable for the 1997 abuse of nearly two dozen Bayside State Prison inmates during a monthlong lockdown after a corrections officer was killed there, a court-appointed fact finder has determined.

The opinion by former U.S. District Chief Judge John W. Bissell, named last year to handle 200 abuse claims by prisoners, means that the state would be accountable for monetary damages awarded to the inmates.

The decision, which the state has 30 days to appeal, must be accepted by U.S. District Judge Robert B. Kugler.

Bayside, a medium-security prison with nearly 2,400 inmates in Cumberland County, was put on lockdown between July 30 and Sept. 3, 1997, after guard Fred Baker was stabbed in the back by an inmate with a makeshift knife.

Prisoners were confined to their cells, visitors were prohibited, and a Special Operations Group (SOG) consisting of 57 corrections officers from across New Jersey interrogated inmates and searched cells for weapons.

The SOG officers dressed in riot gear, carried batons and mace, and did not wear name badges.

When the lockdown was lifted, inmates began to report stories of abuse to the Department of Corrections.

More than three dozen inmates told The Inquirer in 1997 that they had been repeatedly beaten, dragged, forced to sit handcuffed in the prison gym for hours, threatened with dogs, and paraded through a gauntlet of SOG officers who beat them with nightsticks.

In his March 29 opinion, Bissell said that the response by corrections officials to the guard's death was "fatally and obviously flawed" and "presented an obvious risk to inmate safety."

The lockdown was "not in itself improper," Bissell wrote. But "both as designed and thereafter implemented, [it] violated the Eighth Amendment rights of inmates."

Once it became clear that the killing was an isolated incident, "a full lockdown with SOG's intimidating presence was not only unnecessary, but dangerous to the safety and well-being of the inmates," he said.

The New Jersey Attorney General's Office has denied that abuse occurred. Federal and state investigations, as well as internal-affairs inquiries, resulted in no disciplinary action for prison officials or guards.

In 2004, a federal judge declined to order the Department of Corrections to change its policies.

"To our knowledge, no one was even reprimanded," Lawrence Lindsay, an attorney for the inmates, said Tuesday.

Civil trial juries have awarded three Bayside inmates monetary damages totaling more than $300,000. Those cases were filed against the state officials. In the last year, Bissell has awarded 23 prisoners an additional $117,000. Their cases were filed against the unidentified SOG guards.

If Bissell's ruling withstands appeals, the state will be responsible for paying in all 26 cases.

Since 1997, the Attorney General's Office has paid almost $4 million in outside attorneys' fees related to the cases, Peter Aseltine, a department spokesman, said Tuesday.

Bissell's ruling placed blame for the abuses on former Corrections Commissioner William Fauver, former Deputy Commissioner Gary Hilton, and Scott Faunce, the former acting administrator at Bayside.

They bear "supervisory liability" for the proven claims of abuse, Bissell said. Fauver and Hilton failed to provide the proper oversight of the special guards, he said.

"The presence of SOG, and particularly its autonomy and virtual immunity from meaningful scrutiny or discipline, exacerbated the risks exponentially," he wrote. Faunce "completely abdicated" his responsibility as the administrator of Bayside, Bissell said.

The Attorney General's Office, which is representing the prison officials, declined to comment on the opinion because the cases remain active and the state is deciding whether to appeal, Aseltine said.

"There comes a time when it becomes a waste of the state's resources to deny what everyone else seems to accept: that bad things happened at Bayside," said Jaime Kaigh, an attorney for the inmates.

In coming months, Bissell will rule on about 30 more inmates' claims of abuse. Ten other prisoners have opted for civil trials.