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Three Prison Officers Charged Criminally In Vicious Beating Of Inmates At NJ Women’s Prison

INSET (left to right): Sgt. Amir Bethea, Officer Lisando “Luis” Garcia, Sgt. Anthony Valvano / NJ Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal
INSET (left to right): Sgt. Amir Bethea, Officer Lisando “Luis” Garcia, Sgt. Anthony Valvano / NJ Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal Photo Credit: INSET: NJ ATTORNEY GENERAL / BACKGROUND: Lori Whiteman (FACEBOOK)

One of three correctional police officers charged with severely beating and pepper-spraying inmates at New Jersey’s notorious women’s prison last month punched one of them in the face 28 times, state authorities said Thursday. 

And it was all caught on video, they said.

Sgt. Amir Bethea, Sgt. Anthony Valvano and Officer Lisando “Luis” Garcia were all charged with official misconduct for what Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal described as a vicious and unrelenting attack on several inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County beginning shortly before midnight Jan. 11.

Led by Bethea and Valvano, more than two dozen officers removed inmates during a “forced extraction,” Grewal said during a virtual news conference Thursday afternoon.

They “did so violently,” deploying pepper spray, rushing into the cells and severely beating at least two of them, the attorney general 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.

Garcia hit one victim in the face 28 times with a closed fist, “even as she was pressed up against the cell wall, her back facing the officers, her arms attempting to cover her face,” the attorney general said.

He later claimed he was defending himself, Grewal said.

Six female inmates have come forward so far, he said, adding that there could be more.

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

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

The video will be released publicly once the investigation is completed, Grewal 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.”

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

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

Surveillance video shows one of the victims in the unit being pepper-sprayed and then punched in the face by Garcia no fewer than 28 times after a five-member team of officers in riot gear entered her cell, Grewal said.

Garcia pummeled the inmate, he said, “despite the fact that [she] had her arms up, was attempting to cover her face to protect herself, and was standing pressed up against a cell wall with her back to the officers.”

Garcia, who was being supervised by Bethea, then submitted a bogus report claiming that the inmate was “throwing punches towards my torso” as he tried to restrain her, the attorney general said.

Another inmate who’d thrown a liquid substance – possibly urine – into the hallway “repeatedly asked officers not to harm her” after Bethea and Valvano show up with a team, Grewal said.

Despite allowing herself to be handcuffed and restrained, the inmate was repeatedly punched, the attorney general said.

Neither Bethea nor Valvano did anything to stop the assault, which left the inmate with a right eye injury that was later found to be an orbital wall fracture, he said.

They also didn’t report the unauthorized use of force, Grewal said.

Bethea claimed that the inmate said she wanted to kill herself, he said.

That, in itself, would have required Bethea or Valvano to follow certain procedures. But they didn’t, Grewal said.

Valvano, meanwhile, wrote in his report that the victim was “banging her head into the cell door and that her cell door had to be breached to prevent further injuries after she was handcuffed.”

Surveillance video shows otherwise, Grewal said.

The victim also denied threatening suicide, the attorney general said, adding that other inmates “corroborated that she was not threatening suicide but was asking not to be beaten up.”

Bethea, Valvano and Garcia were all on a list obtained by Daily Voice last month of 29 officers and supervisors at Edna Mahan who’d been suspended following the incident.

Among those placed on paid administrative leave are 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 first resulting from the three-week criminal investigation.

Bethea, 35, of Springfield, and Valvano, 38, of Bound Brook are both charged with tampering with official misconduct and tampering with public records.

Garcia, 23, of Nutley is charged with aggravated assault in addition to the two other counts.

Grewal commended all of the attorneys, detectives and investigators who are conducting the ongoing investigation for the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, and DOC 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 last month’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.”

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