Fourteen correction officers at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey have been indicted on charges they forcibly removed several inmates from cells last year, attacked them — punching one nearly 30 times — and then tried to cover it up.
A state grand jury Tuesday handed up the indictments on charges of conspiracy, official misconduct, tampering with public records and aggravated assault.
State officials said the attack happened in January 2021, when officers used excessive force to remove prisoners from their cells in a process called extraction that is only supposed to be used if inmates refuse orders to leave their cells on their own or pose a danger to themselves or others. State officials said the tensions at the prison were high following incidents of inmates squirting officers with unknown liquids.
The incident occurred at the prison’s “restorative housing unit,” where prisoners are placed due to disciplinary reasons. Officers wore riot gear, carried shields, and deployed pepper spray to remove 22 prisoners from their cells, a state report on the incident found.
Two prisoners were severely injured, including one who was covered in blood and had her right eye swollen shut from the beatings. Another was punched nearly 30 times in the head and neck, and even though she didn’t resist or provoke the officers, authorities said.
The state attorney general’s office released footage from the incident in July of last year.
The indictment says officers conducted the extractions “with the purpose of punishing, intimidating, or terrorizing one or more inmates.” Investigators said those involved also failed to report the incident and submitted false information on what happened.
Multiple attorneys for corrections officers said Wednesday their clients will fight the charges.
Sharon Bittner Kean — who represents corrections officer Tara Wallace, 37, of Somerset — said in an email that Wallace is “a dedicated civil servant and she intends to fully and vigorously contest the state's allegations." Attorney Jeffrey G. Garrigan — representing Anthony J. Valvano, 40, of Bound Brook — said his client "is being made a scapegoat for all that occurred that night" and looked forward to being vindicated. And Tim Donohue — representing Ryan Valentin, 44, of Bloomfield — cited Valentin's "unblemished record" in 20 years as a corrections officer, and said he was confident Valentin would be exonerated.
The following other officers were also indicted, but heir defense attorneys have not yet responded to requests for comment on Wednesday morning:
- Sean St. Paul, 56, of Newark
- Eddie Molina, 44, of East Brunswick
- Amir E. Bethea, 37, of Springfield
- Andraia Bridges, 45, of North Plainfield
- Brandon Burgos, 22, of Roseland
- Luis A. Garcia, 25, of Nutley
- Courey James, 33, of East Piscataway
- Jose Irizarry, 38, of Paterson
- Desiree Lewis, 33, of Elizabeth
- Gustavo Sarmiento, 29, of Maywood
- Marika Sprow, 33, of West Orange
Details of the attack were first published by NJ.com and ultimately led to the resignation of the Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks.
Gov. Phil Murphy also announced his intentions to close the women’s prison last summer, but his administration has not set a clear timeline of when the Hunterdon County prison will shutter and when the prisoners will be transferred elsewhere.
The state Department of Corrections said the 14 employees named in the indictment were suspended pending the criminal investigation in January. Any employee charged was put on administrative leave without pay, it said.
Abuses at the state’s only women’s prison have been well documented for years. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated found prisoners’ constitutional rights were violated because they were not protected from physical and sexual abuse by prison staff.
The prison remains under federal oversight.
This post has been updated to include comment from an attorneys for Anthony J. Valvano and Ryan Valentin, and comment from the state Department of Corrections.