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Four more charged over Edna Mahan abuses

Eight corrections officials now face criminal penalties over inmate beatings at troubled facility

By Nikita Biryukov, March 18 2021 3:21 pm

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced charges against four more officials at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility Thursday, bringing the total number charged over beatings and other abuses at the state’s only women’s prison to eight.

The investigation, Grewal said, remains ongoing.

Four senior Correctional Police officers face charges of aggravated assault and official misconduct over the beating of a handcuffed inmate in the early morning of Jan. 12.

The officers — Courey James, Gustavo Sarmiento, Jose Irizarry and Tara Wallace, the first woman charged over the latest abuses at Edna Mahan — were allegedly part of a five-person team performing forced cell extractions in the late night of Jan. 11 and into the early morning on Jan. 12.

During one extraction, officers handcuffed an inmate who begged them not to harm her before entering her cell and striking her multiple times, authorities said. The attack left the woman with an orbital wall fracture.

“We’ve now charged eight officers in these brutal attacks at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, and we continue to pursue all evidence and leads in our ongoing investigation,” Grewal said. “I promised to hold everyone accountable who played a role in this horrific incident, at any level of the prison’s hierarchy, and we’re working hard to meet that promise.”

The charges each carry a penalty of five to 10 years in prison and fines of not more than $150,000.

Irizarry faces a second count of official misconduct over a separate cell extraction during which corrections Sgt. Amir Bethea pepper sprayed an inmate without giving her the chance to comply before entering the cell and pinning her with his shield.

Corrections Police officer Luis Garcia then punched the woman 28 times in the head and neck.

Authorities said Irizarry failed to report the unauthorized use of force.

Bethea and Garcia were charged with official misconduct and tampering with public records over that incident, with the officer receiving another charge for aggravated assault.

Two corrections supervisors, Sgts. Anthony Valvano and Matthew Faschan, were charged with official misconduct and tampering with public records for failing to stop the assault of a handcuffed inmate. Faschan faces a second count of official misconduct over his alleged filing of a false report claiming the victim’s injuries were self-inflicted.

He also failed to intervene in the pepper-sprayed inmate’s defense, authorities said.

“The alleged actions of the defendants during these heinous attacks on inmates were completely unconscionable — whether they inflicted harm or stood by and allowed others to do so when they had a duty to intervene,” Office of Public Integrity and Accountability Director Thomas Eicher said. “We urge anyone with information to call 1-844-OPIA-TIPS and help us ensure that all who bear responsibility are brought to justice.”

The scandal at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, the latest in a lurid history of abuses that includes allegations of sexual assault levied by the U.S. Department of Justice, has drawn calls for the resignation of the state’s top corrections officials from almost every state senator.

Calls for Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks’ resignation have been sparser in the Assembly, where he’s due to testify before a joint hearing of the Assembly Judiciary and Women and Children Committees on April 8.

Gov. Phil Murphy has launched his own independent investigation, led by former State Comptroller Matt Boxer, into the abuses there, though it’s not clear when a report might be forthcoming.

Murphy on Wednesday indicated the attorney general’s ongoing probe left the Boxer investigation “a little bit tied up.”

In January, NJ Advance Media reported dozens of guards were suspended after a series of inmate beatings. One woman was beaten so badly she was left confined to a wheelchair.

The abuses have renewed calls for inmates to be removed from Edna Mahan. Assemblywomen Carol Murphy (D-Mount Laurel) and Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City) earlier this month introduced a resolution calling on Hicks to resign, asking federal authorities to step in and requesting Murphy move inmates held there to a safer facility.

It’s not clear when that resolution will move, though it appears unlikely to do so before the April 8 hearing.

Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton) has introduced a resolution impeaching Hicks. While the Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) is unlikely to move that measure — Stanfield is seeking State Sen. Dawn Addiego’s (D-Evesham) seat in the upper chamber in the politically competitive eighth district — there appear to be enough votes to convict Hicks in the Senate.

The chamber last month approved a resolution, sponsored by Addiego, calling for the commissioner’s resignation in a 35-0 vote that followed a joint call by all 25 of the chamber’s Democrats for Hicks to step down.

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