One woman was punched 28 times by a prison guard as she was pinned to the wall of her cell, trying in vain to shield her face from the next blow. She wound up with a concussion, a state investigator said.
Other inmates’ eyes were flooded with pepper spray before they had a chance to comply with orders shouted at midnight by correction officers dressed in riot gear.
Two supervisors who led the raids tried to cover their tracks by filing false reports at a chronically troubled women’s prison in New Jersey, the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, according to the state’s attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal.
On Thursday, three guards — including the two supervisors — were charged with crimes that carry mandatory five-year prison terms as part of a wide-ranging investigation into episodes that took place last month at the prison in western New Jersey.
Mr. Grewal said charges against additional officers were likely.
“All of our residents have a right to be treated with basic decency and all officers have an obligation to avoid force, except when absolutely necessary,” Mr. Grewal said. “Those principles don’t just apply in our streets and in our schools, but also in our prisons.”
The state has also suspended the administrator of the prison and 31 officers.
The president of the union that represents state correction officers, William Sullivan, called the allegations “disturbing,” and said the union supports a thorough investigation “before any judgments are made.”
“The legal process should proceed as anticipated to ensure the facts surrounding these allegations are fully ascertained so that justice may ultimately prevail,” Mr. Sullivan said.
The arrests come less than 10 months after the Justice Department released a report that outlined “systemic failures” at Edna Mahan, the state’s only women’s prison. Protected by a “culture of acceptance,” guards regularly sexually assaulted female inmates, a pattern federal investigators deemed so prevalent that it was found to violate constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment.
As a result of the findings, the state was ordered by the Justice Department to address the problems, but has yet to complete the corrective action. The list of remedial action includes adding cameras that are regularly monitored, making staffing adjustments, creating a way for prisoners to report abuse without fear of retaliation and demolishing or securing prison buildings that “provide opportunities for sexual abuse.”
Aides to Gov. Philip D. Murphy did not respond Thursday to questions about why the reforms outlined by the Justice Department had not been fully implemented. Officials with the department could not be immediately reached for comment.
“Any abuse of power is abhorrent and violates the public trust, and can never be tolerated or excused,” Mr. Murphy said in a statement after Thursday’s charges were announced. “Beyond the criminal investigation, we must have a full accounting of how this incident was able to happen so that we can put in place necessary reforms and safeguards.”
Last week, Mr. Murphy appointed a former comptroller to conduct an investigation separate from Mr. Grewal’s.
Democrats in the State Senate, who have held two hearings over the last several years related to past allegations of abuse at Edna Mahan, have called for the immediate removal of the commissioner of corrections, Marcus O. Hicks.
“I’m tired of assessing what’s wrong here,” Senator Linda R. Greenstein, a Democrat who leads the Senate’s law and public safety committee, said earlier this week. “Clearly there’s a lot wrong.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Hicks said some changes at Edna Mahan had already been implemented, including the addition of extra cameras. She said that he was trying to recruit a commissioner of women’s services to assist with the “implementation of any future D.O.J. settlement requirements.”
“We are committed to partnering with the D.O.J. to ensure inmates’ safety, transparency and changing the facility’s longstanding perception,” the spokeswoman, Liz Velez, said in an email.
Thursday’s charges were based on interviews with prisoners as well as footage from surveillance cameras and video taken by officers, investigators said; the videos, Mr. Grewal said, would eventually be released publicly.
“We must fix the systemic failures that made this incident possible,” he said in announcing the charges.
According to inmates, trouble had been brewing all day Jan. 11 in the Restorative Housing Unit, an area for women charged with violating prison policy.
The women’s monthly commissary orders had just been delivered when guards placed two prisoners known to dislike each other in the same cell, over objections. Within 30 minutes, the women were brawling.
Hours later, another woman, angered that her cell was searched while she was out, began throwing food. By bedtime on Jan. 11, only half the women on the floor had gotten dinner and no one had received nightly medications, according to two women who offered detailed accounts of the day.
Then, just before midnight, guards assigned to the overnight shift arrived in the unit dressed in protective riot gear to remove women from several cells — a procedure known as “forced cell extractions.”
This procedure, Mr. Sullivan has said, requires prior administrative approval and would have involved upward of 20 officers.
In the ensuing chaos, Mr. Grewal said, guards used excessive force that left at least six female prisoners with injuries, including a broken eye socket and a concussion.
“They came to certain girls’ rooms and told them to cuff up,” one injured prisoner wrote in an email, “and when they did cuff up with no problems, they came in and beat them up — punching them, kicking them and slamming them to the ground.”
All three guards charged on Thursday — Officer Luis A. Garcia, Sgt. Amir E. Bethea and Sgt. Anthony J. Valvano — are accused of official misconduct and face a mandatory five-year prison term if convicted.
Officer Garcia, who is accused of repeatedly punching the prisoner in her cell, is also charged with aggravated assault.
“He denies the allegations and will plead not guilty and defend against these charges and seek to be restored to his position,” said Officer Garcia’s lawyer, Bob Cannan.
Lawyers for the sergeants could not be immediately reached for comment.
In the days after the incident, women began reporting the beatings to a state ombudsman and prison justice groups, prompting Hunterdon County prosecutors to begin an investigation with the attorney general’s office.
“Please send help,” read a letter mailed to the director of the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch, Bonnie Kerness. “They are really SERIOUSLY beating these women to DEATH.”
Ms. Kerness, a longtime advocate of prison reform, said that she hoped the criminal charges were the beginning of lasting change at Edna Mahan.
“It’s about time,” she said, adding, “Now we begin the job of: How do we truly change the culture there?”
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