All 14 former New Jersey corrections officers accused of assaulting inmates at a state women’s prison in January 2021 have now been charged.
It’s the latest step in an investigation into an incident that has led to changes at various levels of leadership at New Jersey’s only women’s prison and a promise to close the century-old facility.
The state attorney general’s office announced that all those arrested Tuesday were charged with crimes that include conspiracy, misconduct in office, falsifying government documents and, most seriously, aggravated assault. The officer in charge of the Edna Mahan Correctional Institution for Women in Hunterdon County is among those charged in an overnight forced removal from a cell that left several women seriously injured and hospitalized.
At the time of the attacks, the prison was already the subject of a federal investigation into the sexual abuse of inmates by officers.
Sean St. Paul, 56, of Newark, served as the overnight administrator between January 11 and 12, 2021, and was the highest-ranking official to be charged. Thirteen other officers, aged between 22 and 44, were also charged. They were all arrested within months of the attacks, sparking multiple government investigations.
The investigation gives resignations
Dan DiBenedetti, then the corrections ombudsman, was highly critical of Dan DiBenedetti, the then-corrections ombudsman, at a joint hearing of two Assembly committees in the months after the attacks. Di Benedetti did not use the wider investigative powers given to him by the Dignity Act 2020 and did not visit Mahan after the incident. The day after that hearing, he announced his retirement. In an independent report in June 2021, then-Correction Commissioner Marcus Hicks described himself as out of touch and unaware that Mahan had no permanent administrator leading up to and on the night of the attacks. Hicks resigned the day after the report was released.
Mahan staff forcibly removed inmates from their cells after they sprayed unknown liquids through their cell doors at guards. But under state Department of Corrections policy, officers must use force only when inmates refuse to be handcuffed and leave their cells or if they pose a threat to themselves or others. Prosecutors allege the officers planned to use force regardless of whether the women resisted, and in some cases even prevented the inmates from complying with orders.
The videos capture the violence
An inmate ended up in hospital with a concussion after an officer punched her, pushed her or grabbed her hair nearly 30 times, despite no apparent provocation or physical resistance, the investigation found. Another female enforcer was also taken to hospital, where doctors found her with a fractured skull around her eye and boot marks on her body. Published videos the attorney general’s office in July 2021 revealed some of the violence.
“The New Jersey Department of Corrections does not condone the abuse of incarcerated individuals,” DOC spokesman Dan Sperazza
The indictment alleges that the officers planned, supervised, participated in or failed to stop “one or more forcible removals from cells at the correctional facility level for the purpose of punishing, intimidating or terrorizing one or more inmates.” They are also accused of aiding and abetting the attacks and failing to report them, which is their duty as law enforcement officers. Investigators say internal reports of the incident were false or misleading in an attempt to cover up the brutality and what led up to the attacks.
Dan Sperazza, a DOC spokesman, said all of the defendants were initially suspended pending the investigation and placed on administrative leave without pay after the charges were filed. If convicted, the officers face three to five years in prison and a $15,000 fine for falsifying government documents, up to five to 10 years in prison with a requirement to serve at least 85% of that time and $150,000 in fines . fine for aggravated assault, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
“The New Jersey Department of Corrections does not condone the abuse of inmates,” Sperazza said. “The indictment of these 14 individuals demonstrates the brutality of their actions and their breach of responsibility to ensure the safety and care of prisoners in their custody.”
At the time of the attacks, DOC was upgrading the cameras around Mahan. Victoria Kuhn, who succeeded Hicks, made a number of reforms, including expanding officer training and requiring anyone who comes into contact with inmates to wear body cameras. Many are focusing on “cultural change,” she told inmates and the public during a meeting earlier this month that marked the end of the first year of federal monitoring that was part of a settlement of a federal civil rights complaint related to sexual assault. During that meeting, Kuhn also said she expects final recommendations for the new facility to replace Mahan to be released soon, and that the new prison will include “advancements in prison reform,” including improvements to visiting facilities, reentry programs and long-term care.
Terry Schuster took over as corrections ombudsman four months ago and earlier this month released the office’s first report on the horrific temperatures inside the system this summer. During the meeting, Schuster told attendees how his office plans to fulfill its watchdog role under the Dignity Act.
“We are now developing our plan going forward, which will consist of a combination of responding to calls from inmates and family members to individual calls for help and complaints to see if we can be helpful,” he said, “doing some systemic monitoring.” issues related to safety and health, access to loved ones, participation and personal purposeful activities.’