Three officers charged in violent assault at NJ women's prison, attorney general announces
Former inmates of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, located in Union Township, Hunterdon Conty, testify about alleged instances of sexual abuse and harassment before a committee in the New Jersey Senate in February.
Three corrections officers have been charged after a violent assault on inmates at New Jersey's women's prison that left one woman with a concussion and another with a broken bone near her eye, the state attorney general announced Thursday.
The officers have also been charged with trying to cover up the abuse by omitting their actions or details of the injuries suffered by the women in their official reports.
In announcing the charges, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal gave the most complete account yet of what allegedly happened at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility overnight from Jan. 11 into Jan. 12, an incident that has since drawn calls from advocates and lawmakers that Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks be removed from his post.
"All of our residents have a right to be treated with basic decency, and all officers have an obligation to avoid force except when absolutely necessary," Grewal said. "Those principles don't just apply in our streets and our schools, but also in our prisons."
Grewal said the investigation is ongoing, additional charges are expected and at least six victims have come forward. The charges announced Thursday related to the injuries of two women who were beaten "without justification."
According to Grewal and the criminal complaints:
- More than two dozen officers were trying to remove women from their cells on the Restorative Housing Unit inside the Clinton prison using a technique called a forced cell extraction. Twenty-one women are housed there.
- One woman was pepper-sprayed before a team of five officers entered her cell. Immediately upon entering the cell, Corrections Officer Luis Garcia punched and struck the woman 28 times near her face, though the woman had her arms up trying to protect herself and was next to the cell wall with her back to the officers.
Garcia exceeded the allowable use of force, according to the Attorney General's Office, and left the woman with a concussion and bloodied.
Garcia then filed a false report claiming the victim was "throwing punches towards my torso," but video evidence showed the woman did not throw punches.
Robert R. Cannan, an attorney for Garcia, said Garcia denied the charges.
“He intends to plead not guilty and defend against the charges,” said Cannan, of Markman & Cannan in Bloomfield.
Two corrections sergeants who led the extraction at another cell were also charged. One of the sergeants also supervised the removal in which Garcia was involved.
"Generally speaking, extraction teams cannot forcibly remove inmates from their cells without first giving the inmates an opportunity to comply with the officers' requests to exit voluntarily," Grewal said.
"Nor can they use force beyond what is objectively reasonable. As is alleged in today's complaint, the teams lead by Sgts. Bethea and Valvano disregarded those policies and did so violently."
What the accusations are
Video that has not yet been publicly released shows that the woman in a second cell was throwing an "unknown white liquid substance" into the hallway shortly before officers appeared at her door, according to the Attorney General's Office.
The woman complied when officers told her to put her hands through a food port to be handcuffed and "asked officers not to harm her." Though the woman complied, "one or more" corrections officers struck the woman with their fists.
The woman suffered an orbital wall fracture, a break in one of the bones surrounding the eyeball.
Sgt. Amir E. Bethea and Sgt. Anthony J. Valvano failed to report the unauthorized use of force against an inmate who had been handcuffed and was not resisting, the charges allege.
Bethea claimed in his report that the woman stated she wanted to kill herself, but there was no evidence that officers reacted with emergency procedures appropriate for such a claim, and the victim denied threatening suicide.
Valvano wrote in his report that the woman was banging her head against the door and the door had to be breached to prevent further injuries, but video did not corroborate the account and the woman denied banging her head against the door.
Bethea also supervised the extraction for which Garcia was charged. His report on that incident does not disclose the injuries the woman suffered.
What are the charges against the officers?
In a press briefing, Grewal did not comment when asked about any actions that proceeded the cell extractions.
William Sullivan, president of the PBA Local 105 union for corrections workers, has previously said inmates were throwing bodily fluids at officers throughout the day before the cell removals took place.
The officers have been charged as follows:
- Officer Luis (aka Lisandro) A. Garcia, 23, of Nutley: second-degree aggravated assault; second-degree official misconduct; third-degree tampering with public records or information.
- Sgt. Amir E. Bethea, 35, of Springfield: two counts of second-degree official misconduct; two counts of third-degree tampering with public records or information.
- Sgt. Anthony J. Valvano, 38, of Bound Brook: second-degree official misconduct; third-degree tampering with public records or information.
Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in prison and fines up to $150,000. The officers face a mandatory minimum prison term of five years if convicted on a count of official misconduct.
Grewal said the investigation is ongoing and based in part on video evidence from prison cameras and of the cell extractions that would be released to the public after the initial investigation is complete.
Grewal's Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, which handles excessive-force complaints, handled the investigation with help from the Department of Corrections and the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office.
Corrections and union officials previously said about 30 officers were placed on paid administrative leave after the allegations of abuse in mid-January.
The incident sparked outrage among lawmakers and advocates, who noted that just last year a federal investigation found unchecked sexual abuse and a fear of retaliation at the prison.
"It's about time," Bonnie Kerness, program director for American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch, said after learning of the new charges. “The issue of violence in the women's prison and throughout the system is something that AFSC Prison Watch gets calls and letters on every day."
"The brutality is unconscionable," she said.
Hicks, the corrections commissioner, said in a statement that the department has "zero tolerance for anyone who goes against its mission of operating safe and humane facilities."
"There is no place for bad actors amongst our ranks, and anyone who seeks to inflict harm on incarcerated individuals will be prosecuted accordingly," Hicks' statement reads.
All 25 Senate Democrats signed a letter calling on Gov. Phil Murphy to remove Hicks, but Murphy has declined to do so and said instead that he supports Hicks' policies. Murphy also hired former state Comptroller Matthew Boxer to conduct a parallel investigation of the abuse.
"Any abuse of power is abhorrent and violates the public trust, and can never be tolerated or excused," Murphy said in a statement Thursday after Grewal announced the charges.
"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," the statement said.
Yet the announcement of charges being filed strengthened calls for Hicks' removal.
"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," Sen. Mike Testa, R-Cumberland, said in a statement. "How much evidence does Governor Murphy need that Commissioner Hicks is unfit to lead the New Jersey Department of Corrections?"
Stacey Barchenger is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s policymakers and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.