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Four More NJ Prison Officers Charged In Vicious Beatings Of Female Inmates

BOX: Jose Irizarry, Courey James, Gustavo Sarmiento Jr., Tara Wallace / INSET: NJ Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal
BOX: Jose Irizarry, Courey James, Gustavo Sarmiento Jr., Tara Wallace / INSET: NJ Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal Photo Credit: NJ ATTORNEY GENERAL

UPDATE: Four more correctional officers have been charged in the brutal beating and pepper-spraying of inmates at a New Jersey women’s prison, bringing the total to eight, authorities announced Thursday.

Of the four officers newly charged for the January incident at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, one is from Maywood, another from Paterson, a third from Somerset and the other from East Piscataway.

All four senior officers “purposely or knowingly attempted to cause serious bodily injury to inmates as an accomplice or as a principal by using force beyond what was objectively reasonable and necessary in violation of DOC policy” during a savage reign of terror, Jan. 12, state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said.

“I promised to hold everyone accountable who played a role in this horrific incident, at any level of the prison’s hierarchy,” Grewal said, “and we’re working hard to meet that promise.”

He identified the quartet most recently charged with official misconduct and aggravated assault as:

  • Senior Correctional Police Officer Jose Irizarry, 37, of Paterson;
  • Senior Correctional Police Officer Courey James, 31, of East Piscataway;
  • Senior Correctional Police Officer Gustavo Sarmiento Jr. 27, of Maywood;
  • Senior Correctional Police Officer Tara Wallace, 35, of Somerset.

The officers were all on a list obtained by Daily Voice in January of 29 officers and supervisors at Edna Mahan who’d been suspended following the incident.

Among those placed on paid administrative leave were an associate administrator, two corrections majors, a corrections lieutenant, five corrections sergeants and 20 corrections officers, according to a state Department of Corrections memo obtained by Daily Voice.

Thursday’s announcement was the latest resulting from an ongoing criminal investigation.

Irizarry, James and Sarmiento were among more than two dozen officers dressed in riot gear who violently removed inmates -- deploying pepper spray, rushing into the cells and severely beating at least two of them -- during a “forced extraction,” Grewal said.

Then they lied about it, he said.

Injuries inflicted on the various inmates included concussions, an orbital fracture, cuts, bruises and “obvious psychological trauma,” Grewal said.

The trouble at the prison in Clinton began around 10:30 p.m. Jan. 11, when supervisors conducted forced cell extractions in a segregated unit where 21 inmates were housed, the attorney general said.

Administrative segregation -- or ADSEG -- is a form of disciplinary detention that stops short of solitary confinement, prison officials say.

Irizarry was the first officer through the door during an attack on a pepper-sprayed victim who was punched in the face 28 times by a colleague “even as she was pressed up against the cell wall, her back facing the officers, her arms attempting to cover her face,” Grewal said.

Irizarry “forcibly used his shield” on the victim as Correctional Police Officer Luis Garcia” pummeled her, leaving the unresisting inmate with a concussion and facial injuries, he said.

Wallace, meanwhile, handcuffed a complaint inmate who’d thrown a liquid substance – possibly urine – into the hallway, then stood by as a group of officers flooded the cell and beat the victim as she begged them not to harm her, Grewal said.

Irizarry, James and Sarmiento were all part of that group, the attorney general said.

Like Wallace, they stood by and did nothing, he said.

The victim “could be heard crying in pain as she was struck multiple times by members of the extraction team,” Grewal said.

She emerged with a fractured orbital bone, he said.

None of the officers reported the unauthorized use of force, “despite their legal duty to do so,” Grewal added.

The criminal charges against the officers carry mandatory minimum sentences of five years in state prison.

Even more officers could be charged as state authorities continue an investigation that includes a review of video surveillance “to determine who else was involved,” Grewal noted.

The video will be released publicly once the investigation is completed, he said.

None of the force used during the beat-down was “objectively necessary and reasonable,” under state Department of Corrections policies, the attorney general said.

There’s no excusing it, he added.

“A victim of physical abuse is entitled to compassion, even inmates,” Grewal said. “All victims deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of whether or why they’re incarcerated.”

Grewal commended all of the attorneys, detectives and investigators who are conducting the ongoing investigation for the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA), the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, and the state Department of Corrections Special Investigations Division.

The lead attorneys are Deputy Attorney General Jonathan Gilmore, Special Deputy Attorney General Michael McDonald, and Assistant Prosecutor Kelly Daniels of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office.

Grewal also thanked victim-witness advocates who spoke with the targeted inmates and helped them obtain the medical and psychological services they need.

Located off Route 78 in Clinton, Edna Mahan has long been one of the region’s most notorious lockups. Several correctional police officers at the facility have been charged with sexual assault or misconduct over the past decade.

Corrections officials last year promised a change in culture at the prison, which holds 550 or so women. They said they’d been working with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle federal allegations of violating inmates' civil rights by not protecting them from systematic abuse by guards and a “brotherhood of silence.”

Then came January’s incident.

“Edna Mahan has a long, ugly history -- one that has justifiably attracted scrutiny from county, state, and federal investigators,” Grewal said. “That’s why we must do more than simply figure out what went wrong on Jan. 11. We must hold the responsible parties accountable, and we must fix the systemic failures that made this incident possible.”

The officers’ behavior during the “heinous attacks” was “completely unconscionable -- whether they inflicted harm or stood by and allowed others to do so when they had a duty to intervene,” OPIA Director Thomas Eicher said.

“We urge anyone with information to call 1-844-OPIA-TIPS and help us ensure that all who bear responsibility are brought to justice,” the director added.

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