Four senior correctional officers have been charged with assault and misconduct stemming from a January attack on inmates at New Jersey’s only women’s prison, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Thursday.
Eight guards, all but one of them men, at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, in Clinton, have now been charged as part of an investigation led by the attorney general’s office and county prosecutors.
“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,” Grewal said in a statement.
Facing second-degree official misconduct and aggravated assault charges are senior correctional officers Jose Irizarry, Courey James, Gustavo Sarmiento and Tara Wallace.
Irizarry’s attorney, Peter Till, said, “We are going to absolutely and vigorously defend against what we regard as baseless charges.”
Sarmiento’s attorney declined to comment. Messages were left with James’ and Wallace’s attorneys.
According to Grewal, late Jan. 11 and early Jan. 12, the defendants were part of “force cell extractions” of inmates at the prison. A motive wasn’t given.
Early Jan. 12, Irizarry was part of a five-person team of guards that violently removed an inmate identified as Victim 1 from her cell, according to authorities. Despite her compliance with a request to be handcuffed, she was hit repeatedly and suffered a broken bone near her eye.
Irizarry failed to prevent the unauthorized use of force and did not report the force despite a legal duty to do so, officials said.
He was also the first person in the cell of an inmate identified as Victim 2 and used his shield against her, according to authorities. The victim was pepper-sprayed, not given time to comply with guards’ orders and punched repeatedly, according to Grewal.
James attempted to seriously injure an inmate as an accomplice by using force beyond what was reasonable and necessary, in violation of Department of Corrections policy, authorities said.
James was the first officer in Victim 1′s cell on Jan. 12, Grewal said. The inmate cried in pain as she was struck. James is accused of aiding the unauthorized use of force despite a duty to prevent it and then failing to report it, according to Grewal.
Wallace and Sarmiento were also involved in Victim 1′s cell, aided and abetted the unauthorized use of force, and did not report it, according to Grewal.
There were at least six victims, Grewal has said earlier.
The news has led to calls for the removal of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, with the state Senate passing a resolution seeking his ouster. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has hired an outside counsel to investigate what happened at the prison and has so far resisted calls to fire Hicks.
A spokesperson has said that Hicks has worked to implement changes at Edna Mahan and that removing him could hamper progress. In April 2020, a U.S. Justice Department report detailed a culture of rampant sexual abuse at the prison.
None of the guards charged faces sex abuse allegations.
The other four guards charged are Sgts. Amir Bethea, Matthew Faschan, Anthony Valvano and officer Luis Garcia. Lawyers for Garcia and Valvano have said their clients are not guilty. Messages left with Bethea’s and Faschan’s attorneys have not been returned.