Three officers at NJ women’s prison charged after alleged assault

As investigation continues, attorney general says guards attempted to “cover up” the incident

Three corrections officers were charged Thursday in the assault on inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Hunterdon County that left one woman with a fractured eye socket and another with a concussion last month.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said more charges are likely as the investigation continues into the incident, which occurred during overnight hours beginning Jan. 11 as part of an “extraction” of inmates from their cells. He said the filing of charges was delayed by the guards’ filing of false reports in an attempt to “cover up” the incident and injuries sustained by prisoners.

This was only the latest problem at the troubled institution. Eight correctional police officers have been charged with sexual assault at the state’s only women’s prison since 2015. 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 has been announced.

“Edna Mahan has a long, ugly history — one that has justifiably attracted scrutiny from county, state, and federal investigators,” Grewal said in announcing the charges. “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. I’m committed to using the full resources of my office and, with the assistance of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, we will tackle this problem head on.”

Matt Boxer, the former state comptroller, is also conducting an independent investigation of this incident at the request of Gov. Phil Murphy. In a statement issued after the charges were announced, Murphy said this investigation must provide “a full accounting of how this incident was able to happen so that we can put in place necessary reforms and safeguards.”

Charges of misconduct and assault

In the latest incident, two sergeants, Amir Bethea and Anthony Valvano, and Officer Luis Garcia face charges of official misconduct and tampering with public records, with Garcia also charged with aggravated assault for allegedly punching one of the victims 28 times in the face. The misconduct and assault charges carry prison terms of five-to-10 years, while the penalty for records tampering is three-to-five years.

Complaints allege Bethea and Valvano led two extraction teams that removed two women from their cells shortly before midnight on Jan. 11. 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 repeatedly, leaving her with facial injuries and a concussion. Grewal would not discuss the motivation for the extractions or whether they were justified, saying more details would be revealed as the investigation progresses. He also would not comment on allegations by one woman that she was sexually assaulted. More than a dozen guards and other staff reportedly have been placed on administrative leave.

Grewal said more than two dozen officers at Mahan were involved in the extraction efforts and there are six women victims. Under state Department of Corrections procedures, an extraction team cannot forcibly remove an inmate from a cell without first giving her the opportunity to comply, “nor can they use force beyond what is objectively reasonable,” he added.

Grewal: ‘Without justification’

“The teams led by Sergeants Bethea and Valvano disregarded these policies and did so violently,” Grewal said. He added that the use of pepper spray and the beatings of several inmates were “without justification.”

Investigators are reviewing video footage and the attorney general urged others with information about the attacks to come forward “now.” He called the actions against the three officers Thursday “the first wave of charges filed in this case.”

Published reports allege an administrator at the facility may have played a role in the incident. Grewal pledged that investigators will “determine who else at any level of the prison’s hierarchy was responsible for these criminal acts.”

This latest incident, on top of past problems and an unhappiness with the way he is implementing some policies has prompted numerous members of both political parties in both houses of the Legislature to call for the replacement of Marcus Hicks as corrections commissioner.

“We have federal reports of constitutional rights violations, unnecessary COVID deaths, evidence of widespread sexual and physical abuse, and now criminal charges related to the ongoing mismanagement of our prisons. How much evidence does Governor Murphy need that Commissioner Hicks is unfit to lead the New Jersey Department of Corrections?” asked Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland). “Does he really need an expensive report to tell him what is readily apparent?”

Murphy said last week that he supports Hicks.

Our Senior Writer Colleen O’Dea  joins Anchor Briana Vannozzi with the latest.

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