State authorities announced charges against three corrections officers suspended from the state’s only women’s prison over their alleged roles in a series of assaults against inmates there Thursday.
Luis Garcia, a 23-year-old Nutley resident, was charged with aggravated assault, official misconduct and tampering with public records.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Garcia was part of a five-person team of officers at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility that pepper sprayed and inmate before entering her cell. They said Garcia entered the cell and punched the inmate, in the face, 28 times while she huddled against a cell wall in an attempt to shield herself.
Authorities further claim Garcia lied about the incident in a report, claiming the inmate attacked him as he moved to restrain her. Grewal said video evidence contradicts that story.
“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 January 11. We must hold the responsible parties accountable, and we must fix the systemic failures that made this incident possible.”
The abuses at the prison, first reported by NJ Advance Media, have spurred a statewide outcry that included calls from all 25 Democrats in the State Senate for Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks’ resignation.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee will probe the Edna Mahan abuses, and Gov. Phil Murphy has tapped former State Comptroller Matt Boxer for an independent investigation into the breaches there.
NJ Advance Media was first to report the charges announced Thursday.
Two supervisors at the prison were also charged with official misconduct and tampering with public records.
Sgt. Amir Bethea oversaw the incident for which Garcia was charged. Authorities claim he failed to give the victim time to comply with orders after she was pepper sprayed, as required by a Department of Corrections directive, and did not disclose her injuries in his report of the incident.
Bethea and Sgt. Anthony Valvano are accused in a separate incident where a victim was handcuffed before being beaten by one or more corrections officers as they were removing her from her cell.
Neither supervisor stepped in to intervene, authorities say, despite the beating being a clear violation of the Department of Correction’s use of force policy. The incident left the inmate with an orbital wall fracture.
“I am grateful to Attorney General Grewal for taking swift action and filing criminal charges in the wake of the horrifying incident at Edna Mahan on January 11, which resulted in severe injury to several inmates,” Gov. Phil Murphy said. “Among other things, the indictment alleges that corrections officers committed official misconduct by abusing their office to injure or deprive individuals under their care. Any abuse of power is abhorrent and violates the public trust and can never be tolerated or excused.”
Dozens of officers and supervisors were suspended over the beatings, and Grewal said his office’s investigation continues.
The probe was conducted by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office and the Department of Corrections’ Special Investigations Division.
“Our investigation into this egregious incident is active and ongoing, and we anticipate additional criminal charges,” OPIA Director Thomas Eicher said. “We will follow the facts wherever they lead us to ensure that everyone who participated in this alleged abuse of authority and brutal attack is held accountable.”