He has limited contact with other inmates and is denied the standard work, education and recreational opportunities afforded most prisoners, says his lawyer, Donald F. Manno.
"It's outrageous," Manno said last week.
State officials say it's for his own protection, according to prison documents filed in federal court. They say Scarfo Jr., whose father is one of the most notorious mob bosses in America, was placed in protective custody
because of "death threats."
Punitive or protective?
That's the question Manno is asking in legal papers filed in U.S. District Court in Camden last week. The filings allege that Scarfo's civil rights are being violated by the New Jersey Department of Corrections.
"The state is acting in bad faith," Manno said before filing a civil rights suit and seeking a temporary restraining order that would require prison officials to return the young mob figure to the general prison population.
"It's unfair. He's been branded. And it's strictly because of his name."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections would not comment on the suit or Manno's allegations but said Scarfo was being treated the same as any other prisoner housed in protective custody.
Scarfo Jr., 29, was placed in isolation shortly after he began serving his seven-year state prison sentence in November. At the time, he was told that prison authorities had learned of threats against him.
But both Manno and Scarfo Jr. question the legitimacy of those threats. In an administrative appeal filed while he was in Bayside State Prison in Leesburg in January, Scarfo Jr. told prison officials that he wanted to waive his right to protective custody.
"I do not know of any threat and sincerely doubt one exists," he said in a two-page, typed letter to Bayside Prison administrators. "All I have ever been told is that 'somebody' was threatening my life. . . . I know of no threat and believe this action to be arbitrary and punitive."
Scarfo's request was denied, and, a short time later, he was transferred
from a protective-custody cell in Bayside to the Vroom Building in West Trenton. The result, Manno says, is that his client is being held in the equivalent of solitary confinement, a status reserved for inmates who have violated prison regulations.
An internal prison document that Manno has included in his federal court filings provides only sketchy details about the death threats. The memo is addressed to Scarfo Jr. from an internal-affairs officer at Bayside. It says, in part, that "information received by this office indicates that your life is in jeopardy if housed in the general population of any correctional facility." The memo also says: "The information supporting your placement (in involuntary protective custody) is deemed confidential in nature."
Manno has labeled the Department of Corrections' handling of the matter arbitrary and capricious. He first filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal court last month, seeking an order lifting the protective-custody classification.
District Court Judge Joseph Irenas dismissed the petition, ruling that Manno had to "exhaust other remedies" before filing the writ. Manno said he then decided to file the civil-rights suit.
The suit seeks undisclosed damages as well as an order returning Scarfo to the general prison population. The suit also seeks to have any education, good-time and work-time credits that Scarfo may have lost because of his isolation status applied against his seven-year sentence.
Manno has estimated that protective-custody status could result in the loss of 344 days of credit against the seven-year term and that it prohibits Scarfo
from qualifying for less-restrictive assignments to prison work farms, camps and halfway houses.
Manno said he hoped the judge would grant a hearing this week on his request for the temporary restraining order. He said he hoped to subpoena prison officials to get more details about the alleged threats, which he argues are founded on "baseless rumors."
Scarfo Jr. pleaded guilty last year to racketeering charges, admitting that he had been involved in a mob-dominated scheme to sell and distribute illegal video poker machines. In November, he was sentenced by Judge Isaiah Steinberg.
Five other reputed mob figures also pleaded guilty in that case. Two others are awaiting trial.
"It's outrageous," Manno said. "He was convicted of a totally nonviolent crime, and . . . he's in a lockdown more severe than his father's."
Scarfo Sr. is an inmate at the federal prison in Marion, Ill. - considered the top maximum-security facility in the country. He and most other inmates there are locked down for 23 hours each day. Convicted mob boss John Gotti is also a prisoner at Marion.
Scarfo Sr. is serving consecutive 14- and 55-year prison terms. For a time, he tried to maintain control of his Philadelphia-South Jersey crime family through his son. At that point, in the late 1980s, the younger Scarfo ferried messages to and from his father during visits to Marion.
Most underworld observers, however, believe that Scarfo's reign effectively ended on Oct. 31, 1989, when a gunman ambushed Scarfo Jr. in a South Philadelphia restaurant. The younger Scarfo, believed to be a proxy target for those disgruntled with his father, survived the hit but was never again a factor in the South Philadelphia underworld, say law-enforcement and mob sources.
Two years later, Scarfo Jr. was indicted in New Jersey in a gambling and racketeering case that centered on the operations of the small North Jersey faction of the Scarfo crime family that had remained loyal to "Little Nicky."
Since his arrest, Scarfo Jr. has taken a decidedly low profile. Today, most law-enforcement sources say he is no longer active in the local underworld.
"Why would anybody want to kill him?" said one source last week. "He's not involved in anything. His name is never mentioned. He's nothing."
But others speculate that, as in 1989, Scarfo Jr. may still be a proxy target for those upset with his father's violent and self-destructive reign as mob boss.
Prison officials have declined to discuss the death threats or the civil suit filed by Manno.
In an interview last week, Patricia Mulcahy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said Scarfo Jr. was being treated like any other prisoner in protective custody.
He is housed in one of 20 cells in a special tier of the Vroom Building, she said. He has a television set and access to the prison's law library, and he is on a rotating recreational schedule that allows him three or four 2 1/2- hour exercise periods in the prison yard each week.
"He's able to interact verbally with other inmates," Mulcahy said when asked if he had contact with other prisoners. She also said prisoners in protective custody were offered the opportunity to work in housecleaning or food services.
Thus far, she said, Scarfo has not requested a work assignment.