3 guards accused in attack, cover-up at NJ women’s prison

New Jersey
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TRENTON, N.J.— Three prison guards face misconduct charges stemming from a violent attack on at least six female inmates, including one who was punched 28 times, New Jersey’s attorney general said Thursday.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said prosecutors found that the guards tried to cover up the attack at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women by filing false reports. He said the attack happened early Jan. 11 and involved about two dozen guards.

“Edna Mahan has a long, ugly history— one that has justifiably attracted scrutiny from county, state, and federal investigators,” said Attorney General Grewal.

“That’s why we must do more than simply figure out what went wrong on January 11. We must hold the responsible parties accountable, and we must fix the systemic failures that made this incident possible. I’m committed to using the full resources of my office and, with the assistance of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, we will tackle this problem head on.”

Dozens of corrections officers at the Clinton prison — New Jersey’s only women’s prison — were placed on paid leave last month, following allegations that staff brutally beat and sexually assaulted inmates there.

One woman, Ajila Nelson, told NJ.com that officers on Jan. 11 handcuffed her and others, before punching, kicking, stripping and dragging her to a shower, after which she said an unidentified male officer got on top of her and groped and sexually assaulted her.

A transgender woman incarcerated at the facility was beaten by a group of officers and three officers stomped on her head, her mother, Trimeka Rollins, told the newspaper. Her daughter’s knee was so badly damaged that she’s now using a wheelchair, Rollins said.

The three officers, Correctional Police Officer Luis Garcia, Sgt. Amir Bethea and Sgt. Anthony Valvano, face charges of official misconduct and tampering with public records or information. Garcia is also charged with aggravated assault.

Grewal said Thursday the criminal investigation was still in its early stages.

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy named former state comptroller Matt Boxer as an independent investigator into the allegations.

Murphy, who described the officers’ actions as abhorrent and a violation of public trust in a statement Thursday, continued to insist the state would hold anyone responsible to account.

“I understand from the attorney general’s announcement that the criminal investigation is ongoing, and I am confident that anyone who violated the law will be held accountable. Beyond the criminal investigation, we must have a full accounting of how this incident was able to happen so that we can put in place necessary reforms and safeguards. I am thankful to former State Comptroller Matt Boxer for taking on this crucial task.”

New Jersey’s Republican State Senate caucus has repeatedly called for the ousting or the resignation of Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks. State Sen. Michael Testa reiterated that call Thursday.

“We have federal reports of constitutional rights violations, unnecessary COVID deaths, evidence of widespread sexual and physical abuse, and now criminal charges related to the ongoing mismanagement of our prisons,” said Testa. “How much evidence does Governor Murphy need that Commissioner Hicks is unfit to lead the New Jersey Department of Corrections? Does he really need an expensive report to tell him what is readily apparent?”

New Jersey’s Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, said this was just the first step toward reform.

“It was sickening to read the details of the charges against the three officers, and what makes it even more frustrating is that these abuses were allowed to occur despite the scathing report by the U.S. Justice Department last April that concluded that Edna Mahan Corrections officers repeatedly violated the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act and the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution,” said Weinberg. “The acting administrator who was reportedly present during the assaults has been suspended pending further investigation, and the Corrections Commissioner who put him in charge of that facility should immediately be replaced, as the entire 25-member Senate Democratic Caucus recommended to the governor last week. The Attorney General’s Office expects further indictments, but it is clear that the institutional culture within the Corrections Department precludes the agency from reforming itself.”

They continued to call on the federal government to investigate the facility as well.

Hicks, for his part, put out a statement Thursday as well, saying the department had no tolerance for the officers’ actions but giving no hint at a resignation.

“The New Jersey Department of Corrections has zero tolerance for anyone who goes against its mission of operating safe and humane facilities,” said Hicks. “We thank Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General for their work with this criminal investigation. There is no place for bad actors amongst our ranks and anyone who seeks to inflict harm on incarcerated individuals will be prosecuted accordingly.”

PIX11 News’ Kristine Garcia contributed to this report.

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