Dozens of corrections officers at New Jersey’s only women’s prison have been placed on paid leave following allegations that staff brutally beat and sexually assaulted inmates there.
One woman, Ajila Nelson, told NJ.com that officers at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility on Jan. 11 handcuffed her and others, before punching, kicking, stripping and dragging her to a shower, after which she says an unidentified male officer got on top of her and groped and sexually assaulted her.
The allegations led lawmakers on Thursday to calls for investigations and the firing of the state’s top correctional official.
About 30 officers have been placed on paid leave, according to the corrections officers union.
The newspaper reviewed letters and firsthand accounts with advocates and relatives, in addition to speaking with Nelson in a Tuesday night interview from the prison.
A transgender woman incarcerated at the facility was beaten by a group of officers and three officers stomped on her head, her mother, Trimeka Rollins, told the newspaper. Her daughter’s knee was so badly damaged that she’s now using a wheelchair, Rollins said.
Nelson detailed the severity of the attack in her interview with the newspaper.
“They started throwing punches, throwing punches,” Nelson told NJ.com. “I am cuffed so I can’t defend myself. I can’t stop the punches from coming. All I know is they got me to the floor and they started stomping my head. I started getting dizzy and felt like I was going to pass out. Then they grabbed my arm and bent my arm back. I heard it crack and I felt it crack. I tried to look up and look at my arm. As soon as I looked up, I got kicked in my face with a boot. My whole sight went out.”
The Associated Press doesn’t usually identify victims of sexual assault, but Nelson said she wanted the public to hear about the attack on her and the other women.
Nelson told the newspaper she was eventually administered a rape kit. Her family members told NJ.com she reported the same details to them.
It’s unclear how many other inmates were involved.
The AP left a message with an attorney for Nelson, who is currently serving a three-year sentence on charges including forgery.
A motive for the attack isn’t clear, but Nelson said she believed it was in retaliation for complaints the women had made against officers.
Liz Velez, a spokesperson for the state Corrections Department, which oversees the prison, said authorities “engaged” the Hunterdon County’s prosecutor’s office. That office referred questions to corrections officials. The state attorney general’s office said in an emailed statement that its Office of Public Integrity and Accountability and the county prosecutor are investigating the matter, but didn’t provide any further details.
The allegations have led to calls for Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks to be fired. On Thursday, all 25 of the Democratic senators in the Legislature wrote to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy demanding Hicks be removed. They also sought a federal investigation.
A message seeking comment was left with Murphy’s office.
It’s not the first time similar allegations have been raised at the prison, which has 395 inmates, according to the state. In April, a U.S. Justice Department report alleged that the state corrections department and officials at prison violated inmates’ constitutional rights by failing to protect them.
Several corrections officers at the prison have pleaded guilty or been convicted of sexual abuse and misconduct in recent years.
The report called sexual abuse at the prison “severe and prevalent,” and said a “culture of acceptance” has persisted for many years. It concluded that the prison failed to adequately investigate abuse complaints and didn’t protect those who reported abuse from retaliation.