'These officers beat me up': Videos show alleged abuse inside NJ women's prison
The NJ Attorney General's Office released video of alleged abuse of inmates taken by corrections officers inside Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, NJ. NorthJersey.com
A woman's voice fills a hallway inside New Jersey's notoriously troubled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.
"Who they coming for next? Who y'all coming for next?"
Corrections officers — clad in helmets and body armor, and some with plastic shields — march forward, gripping one another by their protective vests, in a line. Small, square windows in otherwise opaque cell doors allow the women to see them coming: a mass of blue uniforms and black vests, moving in formation.
In less than four hours overnight between Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, the teams of officers pulled five women from their cells in an incident that has since roiled the state's prison hierarchy.
Ten corrections officers have been charged with abusing the inmates or trying to cover up what happened; the state's prisons chief, Marcus Hicks, resigned; and the century-old prison facility itself will be shut down.
Late Wednesday, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General released about 90 minutes of surveillance and handheld camera footage of the January assaults. The videos provide the public a rare look into a state prison that has a history of problems.
The footage reveals chaotic scenes as officers used pepper spray and handcuffs to remove women from their cells. One woman appears to be dragged from her cell. In one video, a woman sobs as she is taken to a room with "medical" written on the door.
"I didn't do nothing," she says. "Stop hurting me."
The woman says officers punched her in the eye, which left her bleeding. With her hands cuffed behind her back, seated in a cell with six officers standing around her, the woman asks for a tissue, but instead bends forward to wipe blood from her face onto the knee of her tan, prison-issue pants.
"What happened?" a nurse asks.
"These officers beat me up," the woman responds.
"Why would y'all punch on me like that?" the inmate, whose name is redacted from the video, later asks the officers. "For no reason. Like y'all literally was just punching on me. For what? I wasn't even doing nothing."
Another woman says she was sleeping when officers entered her cell. The videos come from hallway surveillance cameras and handheld cameras certain officers were assigned to carry during the so-called "cell extractions," according to the Attorney General's Office.
Corrections officers across the country are trained to do cell extractions as a way to get control of non-compliant inmates, according to Christine Tartaro, a Stockton University professor of criminal justice who focuses on corrections issues. The procedures are not meant to be used as punishment and are considered uses of force, Tartaro said.
“The objective is to remove the person from the cell in a way that is supposed to minimize the chances of injury to both the inmate and the officers,” she said.
Corrections staff receive training on extractions that includes first seeking an inmate’s cooperation and then placing them in handcuffs, Tartaro said. If an inmate doesn’t comply, officers then enter a cell in a line: The first person with a shield to push an inmate to the back of the cell, those that follow to each grab a limb, and the last person with a camera, Tartaro said.
The video recording is meant to protect officers if there are lawsuits, but can also document excessive force, Tartaro said.
Union officials representing the corrections officers have previously said the forced cell removals came after inmates were throwing urine and feces onto officers. Some of the videos show liquid on the hallway floor.
But state prosecutors say 10 corrections officers involved that night didn't follow department policy for such inmate removals, and broke the law, either by assaulting the women or by trying to cover up excessive force in their reports. The Department of Corrections, which runs Edna Mahan, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
"I was sick" watching the videos, said Bonnie Kerness, the program director for American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch, who alerted lawmakers to the January incident. Kerness said the videos captured "torture" of inmates.
The prison, which is the only facility for women inmates in the state, has long been the subject of scrutiny. A 2020 U.S. Department of Justice report found rampant sexual abuse of inmates and retaliation for reporting officer misconduct. This year the state agreed to settle a sexual abuse lawsuit filed by inmates for $21 million.
Despite that scrutiny, abuses continued at the prison, baffling lawmakers, prompting new investigations and bringing sweeping changes.
The videos provide just a partial look at what occurred. State prosecutors have said at least one officer did not video-record as he was supposed to.
Prosecutors said two of the inmates were abused and suffered severe injuries, including a concussion and broken facial bones. One officer hit an inmate about 28 times in her head, according to the attorney general, whose office is continuing its investigation.
In one video, a corrections sergeant unlocks a small opening in a cell door, asking the woman inside to stick her hands out to be handcuffed. Five corrections officers jostle in a line behind the sergeant, waiting to enter the cell.
The officer twice tells the woman to "put her hands out," and she twice tells him, "I gotta pee."
"Last call," the sergeant says. "Come to the door and put your hands out."
Then he uses a can of pepper spray to spray into the cell. That interaction takes just 17 seconds.
All six corrections staffers then hustle into the small cell, where the video captures at least one of them repeatedly saying, "Stop resisting." Officers are coughing as the woman is facing the cell wall.
At least one officer appears to be striking the woman as she shields her head with her hands. The attorney general has said she was hit approximately 28 times and she was not resisting officers.
When officers handcuff her and push her into the hallway about 90 seconds later, her shirt is open and her chest exposed. At one point, at least eight officers surround her as she is pushed face-forward against the wall with a plastic police shield.
"I'm not resisting," she says from behind the plastic.
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.