4 more officers charged with assault, misconduct at NJ women’s prison

New Jersey

Irizarry, James, Sarmiento and Wallace (State of New Jersey)

TRENTON, N.J. — Another four correction officers have been charged with assault and misconduct by New Jersey’s attorney general for their actions in a January cell extraction at the state’s lone women’s prison, bringing the total number of officers charged to eight.

The charges were announced by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal Thursday. The charges stem from an investigation led by the attorney general’s office and county prosecutors.

All of the arrests come from the same incident. According to a state investigation, between approximately 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 11 and 1:15 a.m. on Jan. 12, a number of DOC officers and supervisors assigned to the facility conducted forced cell extractions of inmates located in the Restorative Housing Unit (RHU) complex.

During the extraction, an officer who was later charged by the state, struck the victim in the face with a closed fist approximately 28 times, despite the victim not resisting. The victim’s injuries included a concussion.

Senior Correctional Police Officers Jose Irizarry, Courey James, Gustavo Sarmiento Jr., and Tara Wallace were involved in the forced cell extractions. All four were charged Thursday with official misconduct and aggravated assault.

During the course of the extractions, Irizarry purposely or knowingly attempted to cause serious bodily injury to inmates as an accomplice or as a principal by using force beyond what was objectively reasonable and necessary, in violation of DOC policy. A five-person suited team comprised of correction officers from EMCF performed a forced cell extraction for a “Victim 1,” who was housed in the RHU.

During the extraction, Victim 1 was compliant and placed in handcuffs seconds before the extraction team entered the cell. Victim 1 begged officers not to harm her. Rather than permit Victim 1 to leave the cell voluntarily, the extraction team forcibly entered the cell of Victim 1, in violation of DOC policy.

Victim 1 could be heard crying in pain as she was struck multiple times by members of the extraction team, resulting in a fractured orbital bone. Irizarry is accused of aiding and abetted or failed to prevent this unauthorized use of force despite his legal duty to prevent it. Irizarry also allegedly failed to report this unauthorized use of force despite his legal duty to do so.

Irizarry was also allegedly part of the team that extracted a “Victim 2.” During the extraction, Sgt. Amir Bethea deployed pepper spray and did not give Victim 2 an opportunity to comply before the team made entry into her cell, in violation of DOC policy. Irizarry was the first officer through the cell door. During the extraction, Irizarry forcibly used his shield upon Victim 2, who was not resisting, and aided and abetted Correctional Police Officer Luis Garcia as Garcia punched Victim 2 in the head and neck area 28 times, resulting in a concussion and facial injuries.

Irizarry is accused of aiding and abetting or failed to prevent this unauthorized use of force despite his legal duty to prevent it. Irizarry also failed to report the unauthorized use of force against Victim 2 despite his legal duty to do so.

The other three officers are also accused of attempting to cause serious bodily harm to an inmate as an accomplice by using force beyond what was objectively reasonable and necessary in violation of state DOC policy.

“We’ve now charged eight officers in these brutal attacks at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, and we continue to pursue all evidence and leads in our ongoing investigation,” said Attorney General Grewal. “I promised to hold everyone accountable who played a role in this horrific incident, at any level of the prison’s hierarchy, and we’re working hard to meet that promise.”

The charges carry a sentence of 5-10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000. The misconduct charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison without possibility of parole. The aggravated assault charge carries a mandatory term of parole ineligibility equal to 85 percent of the sentence imposed.

Grewal said when the first three officers were charged that prosecutors found that guards tried to cover up an attack at the Mahan Facility by filing false reports. None of the charges against Irizarry, James, Sarmiento Jr. and Wallace accuse them of cover-ups.

“We thank Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, the attorney general, and the department of corrections special investigations division for their continued work with this criminal investigation,” a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Corrections told PIX11 News. “We appreciate their partnership with thorough and swift attention to this case, matching our rigor to fully investigate and, if necessary, hold these individuals accountable for their actions.”

Three officers were initially charged on Feb. 4; a fourth was charged on Feb. 23.

These charges continue to come in as pressure has mounted on New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks. Hicks is scheduled to testify at hearings in the state legislature in Trenton on April 8.

Dozens of corrections officers at the Clinton prison — New Jersey’s only women’s prison — were placed on paid leave in January, 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 Democrat-led State Senate passed the bipartisan resolution for Hicks to either resign or have Murphy fire him 35-0 in February. The resolution also calledon Murphy to transfer inmates to a safe facility and demands the Department of Corrections comply with the recommendations of the US Department of Justice which were issued more than six months ago.

Gov. Phil Murphy has stood by Hicks for the time being and 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, has 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.”

Hicks, rather than resign, announced the hiring of an outside consulting firm to assist with planned reforms at a Hunterdon County prison where three male guards are charged with misconduct in an attack on female inmates.

The Moss Group has been secured by the state’s DOC to “provide technical support in operational practice, policy development and implementation of identified solutions related to Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.” The state is also actively recruiting an assistant commissioner to handle women’s services within the state prison system.

The state’s DOC, in a statement to PIX11 News back in February, believe the Moss Group’s implementation of these reforms are necessary now and that removal of Commissioner Hicks would “only serve to stall this process.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin is calling for Hicks to provide answers at the hearing.

“I am extremely disturbed about the continued allegations of abuse at Edna Mahan,” Coughlin said. “A pattern appears to have developed at the facility, which raises the question of whether those supervising the prison are not doing nearly enough to protect its vulnerable inmates. We need answers and we need reform.”

The department of corrections has not yet responded to PIX11 News’ request for comment regarding Hicks’ appearance at the hearings.

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