NJ women’s prison rape scandal — At least 8 officers fired, facing prison
A prison-rape scandal at the state’s only correctional institution for women continues to grow.
Four former correctional officers at Edna Correctional Facility in Hunterdon County have been indicted on charges of official misconduct and sexual assault, prosecutors announced Monday.
A fifth prison employee has been sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to official misconduct for having sex with an inmate.
But even more former prison officials have been implicated, according to court records obtained by New Jersey 101.5.
According to the Department of Corrections, at least eight employees assigned to the women’s prison have been fired since 2010 as a result of sexual abuse allegations.
Since 2010, the department has referred at least 19 cases of sexual assault allegations in the state’s prisons to prosecutors — almost all from the women’s prison.
“The public trust is violated and everyone is betrayed when a sworn law enforcement officer violates the oath he or she has vowed to uphold,” Hunterdon County Prosecutor Anthony P. Kearns III said Monday.
“Sexual abuse of inmates compromises the safety and security of prisons in general because it leads to a weakening of authority within the institution.”
The four indictments and one guilty plea involved nine alleged victims, whom officials did not identify.
It's not clear how many of those alleged victims are among seven current and former female inmates who have sued the state, saying the prison did not do enough to stop their abuse and rape by two guards.
As a result of those accusations, three guards were fired almost six years ago but never charged with any crime.
A lawsuit by six of the women is headed for trial in March. The seventh woman is appealing her separate case to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals after her lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district judge last year.
Since then, more guards have been accused by other victims.
Indicted last week by a Hunterdon County grand jury on charges of second-degree official misconduct and sexual assault, third-degree criminal coercion and fourth-degree criminal sexual contact:
Jason Mays, 43, of Hillside, who was a senior correction officer since 2005.
Ahnwar Dixon, 38, of East Orange, who was a senior correction officer since 2004.
Indicted on just the two most serious charges:
Brian Y. Ambroise, 33, of Union, who was a senior correction officer since 2013.
Thomas Seguine, 34, of Phillipsburg, who was a senior correction officer since 2008.
Meanwhile, Joel Herscap, 55, of Alpha, a trade instructor at the prison since 2003, pleaded guilty in October and was sentenced to prison.
Kearns said most of the incidents took place in 2015 and 2016, with one taking place in 2010.
Pattern of abuse
Officers Erick Melgar, Jeffrey Smalls and Janette Bennett were fired in 2010 and 2011 after being accused by several women inmates of abuse.
The women suing the state said they were physically and sexually abused by Smalls and Melgar, who they said liked to hit people with a wooden ruler. Bennett was accused of turning a blind eye.
The women said the prison warden knew about the accusations against Melgar as far back as 2008, but the now-retired warden has denied any knowledge of the allegations until 2010, when he initiated an investigation into Melgar and others, and had them fired.
But in court papers, the women argue that the sexual abuse was common knowledge in the prison for many years and that they lived in fear of ratting out their attackers. In fact, many of the victims initially denied being abused by Melgar and even praised him — something the women alleged they did at the instruction of Bennett and others who threatened them with retaliation.
Barbara Clark, 50, says Melgar in 2010 grabbed her by the hair and tried to drag her down the hall. She says she fought him “with all her might and even punched him in his mouth, cutting his lips as she started getting flash backs of the male abuse she has gone through.”
In June 2010, he went into her room while she slept and pressed his face into her breasts, she says. In May or June 2010, she says, she saw Melgar assaulting another inmate who was screaming. She says she tried to pull him off the other woman and he threw Clark down and twisted and squeezed her breasts and nipples.
When she told her counselor about what happened, she says, the counselor encouraged her to report Melgar because other women had complained about him, too.
Tasha Canada, 50, says Melgar hit her so hard with a ruler that she has a permanent mark on her arm and another bruise that lasted two months. Whenever she was attacked by Melgar, she says, Bennett would say “I don’t see anything.”
Robin Streater, 58, says she was raped and abused from 2008 to 2010. She says Melgar would ransack her room and steal her belongings and throw ice at her when she tried to shower.
In May 2010, after a shower, he ordered her to undergo a “strip search” for him, Streater says. Instead, he held her against a wall and rubbed his erect penis on her buttocks and smacked her behind hard, she says. She screamed and tried to kick him away, she says.
She says she feared retaliation because Bennett urged her not to report Melgar. She wouldn’t give Melgar’s name to her prison therapist, who managed to guess his name anyway by asking other prison guards who supposedly knew what was going on, she says.
Therese Afdahl, 57, says Melgar would wrestle her to the ground and assault her, sometimes beat her with a wooden ruler and make her beg for her belongings that he would take from her. She also saw another woman being assaulted and tried to get him off her, she said. He threw Afdahl to the ground and assaulted her instead, she says.
After she complained about him, her possessions were destroyed and the abuse worsened, she says.
Michelle Ellis, 34, says Melgar would grab and fondle her breasts. Harassment was “so pervasive and traumatic that” she “lost a significant amount of weight in order to avoid” Megar’s “unwanted attention to her breasts,” her lawsuit says.
One day he came into her room and said “Are you ready to suck my c--- now?” according to the lawsuit. She says she screamed and panicked and Melgar wrote her up for threatening an officer.
Joann Satorius, 48, says Melgar grabbed and fondled her breasts and put his hands down her pants. She claims Bennett would act as a lookout for Melgar.
Christine Bernat, 38, who filed a separate federal lawsuit in 2013, says she was abused from 2009 until June 20, 2010, four days before the prison began investigating the allegations as a result of another inmate's complaints.
She claimed Melgar had unprotected sexual intercourse and oral sex with her and that he would kiss and grope her and pinch her nipples almost every day he worked.
Bernat says Smalls molested and sexually assaulted her, including kissing her and grabbing her breasts, in a private bathroom for corrections officers. Her lawsuit says this activity “would have, and should have, been readily discernible by a guard monitoring security cameras, though … no guard reported his conduct.”
Her lawsuit says Smalls tried to bribe her with perks and contraband.
She also says the prison interfered with her mail with her attorney, preventing it from going out.
Before she was interviewed by a prison investigator looking into the allegations of abuse, another officer, Jeffrey Ellis, told her that she should deny what happened because nobody would be able to prove it and that “girls end up dead in a parking lot somewhere” when they talk, Bernat says. He also told her that he could easily frame one of the women by putting a can lid under her mattress, she says.
In court documents filed in federal court, the state Attorney General’s Office says the prison should not be held responsible, because top administrators had no idea what was going on until the prison psychologist informed the warden, William Hauck, in June 2010. And even then the victims refused to cooperate.
The state's attorneys characterized the litigation as "no good deed goes unpunished."
In her own filings, Bernat said she was reluctant to come forward at first.
"I was used to being manipulated and used” by men, she said. “I was his robot… I was in prison, he had authority over me.”
“I had been used to be being used by men all my life and it was just something that I was used to, letting guys take advantage of me.”
Bernat says Bennett instructed her to write positive letters about Melgar.
Bernat’s case hinged on a letter that Afdahl supposedly wrote to court administrators on Feb. 28, 2008. But Hauck testified in depositions that he never got the letter and pointed out that the letter did not have a time stamp like other letters received by his office.
Attorneys for the state also argued that the letter only made allegations about "horseplay" — nothing that would have made administrators suspect that inmates would be in danger.
A federal judge said the letter could not be admitted as evidence because it could not be authenticated.
The public trust
Marc Haefner, an attorney for the six women suing in Superior Court, said Monday that news of the indictments is "disappointing given the history of issues at that facility."
Even though his clients may have been convicted of robberies and killings, he said, that doesn't justify the treatment they received by the guards.
"People are convicted for all sorts of reasons. Some are absolutely just; others are less just," said Haefner, with Newark firm Walsh, Pizzi, O’Reilly Falanga.
"There should be an expectation that prisoners will be treated in the fashion that the people of the state of New Jersey have jointly decided, and that does not include rape. That does not include beatings."
The county's prosecutor agreed — and said his office's investigation continues.
“The victims were particularly vulnerable as inmates,” Kearns said. “The corrections officers had complete power and control of every aspect of their lives behind bars.”
“It is the duty of every sworn law enforcement officer to come forward with information of officer misconduct and failure to do so is a breach of the public trust.”
David Matthau contributed to this report.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.