AG investigation into attack inside women’s prison brings more charges

Four more officers now accused following incident that left two inmates injured
Credit: NJ Spotlight News
Edna Mahan Correctional Facility

Four more corrections officers were charged Thursday in a January assault on inmates at the state’s only women’s prison, bringing the total number facing criminal penalties to eight in an incident that spurred lawmakers to call for the head of New Jersey’s prisons to resign.

While the state attorney general’s criminal investigation continues, there is no word on when an “expedited” independent review of the incident at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Hunterdon County, which left one woman with a fractured eye socket and another with a concussion, will be completed.

In the wake of the attacks on Jan. 12, dozens of legislators have called for the resignation or removal of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, but Gov. Phil Murphy so far has said he supports Hicks and is awaiting the results of a review by former state comptroller Matt Boxer. In response to a reporter’s question during Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing, Murphy said he had “no update” on the conclusion of Boxer’s review.

“I’ve used the word expedited,” Murphy said. “It is a little bit tied up with the fact that the attorney general is also in the process of an investigation. So that is a reality.”

Punches and pepper spray

As part of his continuing investigation, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced charges against four senior correctional police officers who were allegedly involved in the forced cell extractions of at least two women. Both women were punched during the extractions and one was pepper-sprayed. State law enforcement officials have called the use of force that evening excessive, unnecessary and in violation of state Department of Corrections policy.

The four charged with official misconduct and aggravated assault are Jose Irizarry, 37, of Paterson; Courey James, 31, of East Piscataway; Gustavo Sarmiento Jr., 27, of Maywood; and Tara Wallace, 35, of Somerset. All are senior officers and all are accused of either aiding and abetting the assaults or failing to prevent them, as well as failing to report the unauthorized use of force against a prisoner. The misconduct and assault charges carry prison terms of five-to-10 years.

“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,” said Thomas Eichler, director of the attorney general’s office of public integrity and accountability.

Pounded by 28 punches

According to law enforcement accounts, two extraction teams set out to remove two women from their cells in the Restorative Housing Unit at Mahan shortly around midnight on Jan. 12. One woman complied and was handcuffed but was still punched, leading to the fractured eye socket. The other did not comply and was pepper-sprayed, pinned against the wall and punched 28 times in and around her face, leaving her with facial injuries and a concussion.

The first three arrests of corrections officers came Feb. 4, with a fourth following three weeks later. Grewal has said more than two dozen officers at Mahan were involved in the extraction efforts. More than a dozen guards and other staff reportedly have been placed on administrative leave.

These assaults are only the latest problem at the troubled institution. Since 2015, eight other correctional police officers have been charged with sexual assault at the state’s only women’s prison. Arrests in 2018 led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and a report earlier this year found that conditions at the facility violate prisoners’ civil rights. While the state was reportedly working with DOJ officials on a settlement agreement last summer, no final agreement was ever reached.

Lawmakers looked at this latest incident as well as past problems in state prisons along with their growing concerns over the way Hicks is implementing some policies and called for his removal. The Senate last month passed without opposition a resolution urging Hicks to resign or be removed. A bipartisan resolution in the Assembly seeks to impeach Hicks.

And several lawmakers, including Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) have said they are planning to introduce legislation that would create a new public advocate’s office with investigatory power to help protect inmates and people in other state-run facilities.