3 officers charged with brutal beatings at NJ women’s prison
Three correctional officers were charged Thursday in connection with a January incident at New Jersey’s women’s prison in which inmates were beaten without justification, and more arrests are likely, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said.
The three officers, including two supervisors, have been charged with official misconduct and tampering with public records. One officer was also charged with aggravated assault in connection with punching an inmate in the head 28 times while she had her hands raised trying to protect herself.
Official misconduct is a second-degree charge that carries a minimum sentence of five years in prison.
Grewal said Department of Corrections policies generally prohibit extraction teams from forcibly removing inmates from their cells unless they first have time to voluntarily comply and cannot use unreasonable force. He said the teams “disregarded those policies and did so violently.”
“We allege that they deployed pepper spray, rushed into the inmates’ cell and beat several of the victims without justification,” Grewal said.
“Unfortunately, our investigation was delayed in part by false and misleading reports filed by officers, officers who attempted to cover up what they had done and the injuries they had caused,” he said.
The officers who have been charged are Sgt. Amir Bethea, 35, of Springfield; Sgt. Anthony Valvano, 38, of Bound Brook; and Officer Luis Garcia, 23, of Nutley.
Over the course of nearly three late-night hours spanning Jan. 11 and 12, officers and supervisors at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton conducted forced cell extractions of inmates in a unit that housed 21 inmates.
One inmate had cooperated with officers and allowed herself to be handcuffed before the alleged beating, which began after she threw an unknown white liquid substance from her cell into the hallway. She was punched repeatedly and suffered an orbital wall fracture to her right eye.
The other inmate had not followed instructions and was pepper sprayed seconds before the extraction team entered the cell. Garcia allegedly punched her 28 times in the head with a closed fist while she was pressed against a cell wall with her back to the officers. She suffered facial injuries and a concussion.
Grewal said authorities are investigating injuries suffered by six of the inmates and that more officers will be charged. He said more than two dozen officers at Edna Mahan took part in forcibly removing inmates from the cells during the incident.
"Let me make plain to those that participated in the events that took place on the 11th and the 12th: The time to come forward is now. The time to speak to our investigators is now. The time to provide information relevent to this investigation is now," Grewal said. "We are going to pursue the evidence in this case wherever it leads and to whoever it leads."
Grewal said video footage from that evening taken by surveillance cameras and of the extraction itself are being reviewed “to determine who else, at any level of the prison’s hierarchy, was responsible for these criminal acts.” He said once the initial investigation is done, the videos will be made public.
William Sullivan, the president of Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, the union representing Garcia, said the union holds its members to the highest possible standards and doesn't condone unprofessional conduct.
"While a review of the allegations lodged against the officers are disturbing, P.B.A. #105 fully supports a thorough investigation being conducted regarding the incidents at issue before any judgments are made pertaining to the allegations or the officers charged in connection therewith," Sullivan said. "Quite simply, P.B.A. #105 believes the legal process should proceed as anticipated to ensure the facts surrounding these allegations are fully ascertained so that justice may ultimately prevail."
William Toolen, president of the New Jersey Law Enforcement Supervisors Association, issued a similar statement in reponse to the charges.
"Recognizing the allegations are somewhat troubling, the NJLESA stresses the importance of a full and fair investigation being conducted so that all the relevant facts and evidence regarding the incidents at issue can be obtained," Toolen said. "Until that time, all conclusions, determinations, and/or judgments regarding the officers charged must be reserved. Instead, in matters such as these, the phrase 'innocent until proven guilty' remains paramount to ensure the integrity of the judicial and legal processes remain untarnished."
The January incident is the latest in a long line of troubles at the prison in Hunterdon County, which includes sexual assaults of inmates by officers and a civil rights investigation by the federal Department of Justice.
Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said there are "long-documented patterns of abuse and retaliation at Edna Mahan and in other facilities around the state."
"The reports of a coordinated, large-scale, physical, and sexual assault by correctional staff at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women are horrific and shameful, and the bravery of survivors who have shared their story cannot be overstated," Sinha said.
Gov. Phil Murphy said he's grateful that swift action was taken after "the horrifying incident" and is "confident that anyone who violated the law will be held accountable."
"Any abuse of power is abhorrent and violates the public trust, and can never be tolerated or excused," Murphy said.
"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," he said.
“It goes without saying that Edna Mahan has a long, ugly history — one that has justifiably attracted scrutiny from county, state and federal investigators,” Grewal said. “That’s why we must do more than simply figure out what went wrong on Jan. 11. We must hold accountable all responsible parties, and we must fix the systemic failures that made this incident possible.”
Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, renewed his call for Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks to be fired.
“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," Testa said. "How much evidence does Gov. 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?”
The entire 25-member caucus of Senate Democrats has also called for Hicks to be removed. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, and Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, said Thursday's criminal charges are just a first step toward fixing Edna Mahan.
"It is clear that the institutional culture within the Corrections Department precludes the agency from reforming itself," they said in a statement. "We again urge the governor in the strongest possible terms to call on the federal government to bring in outside authorities to assume oversight of Edna Mahan.”
Dan Alexander contributed to this report.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.