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New Jersey Women’s Prison Again Under Investigation for Staff Sexual Abuse

by Kevin W. Bliss

In April 2019, an eighth guard at New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women (EMCF) was arrested and charged with official misconduct and criminal sexual conduct.

Ciera Roddy, 32, faces charges similar to those that resulted in the conviction of Jason Mays, a senior guard at the same facility.

The 46-year-old Mays was sentenced in July 2018 to 16 years in prison and lifetime supervised parole, and must register as a sex offender following his convictions for sexual assault, sexual contact and official misconduct involving two prisoners at EMCF. 

Roddy had been transferred to the Adult Diagnostic Treatment Center in Woodbridge just before her arrest. Hunterdon County Prosecutor Anthony P. Kearns III said Roddy was being held at the Somerset County jail awaiting her first court appearance.

A joint investigation by Kearns’ office and the Special Investigations Unit of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) uncovered an inappropriate relationship between Roddy and an EMCF prisoner while the guard was still assigned to the facility. Employed with the DOC since November 2017, Roddy joins Mays and at least six other former employees at the 650-bed prison who have been charged since 2015.

Mays was arrested in October 2016 along with fellow guards Brian Ambroise and Ahnwar Dixon. Following an internal investigation, senior guards Joel Mercado and Ronald Coleman also were charged. [See: PLN, April 2019, p.40; Dec. 2018, p.44].

Dixon, 39, pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree official misconduct in July 2018, while Ambroise, 34, was found not guilty of sexual misconduct and assault in November 2018. Coleman, 39, is still awaiting trial on charges of official misconduct and sexual assault.

Mercado, 37, who was also an academy instructor for DOC recruits, pleaded guilty in February 2019 to sexual misconduct with prisoners between 2013 and 2015. Kearns pointed out that the New Jersey law which prohibits “any form of sexual contact between officers and inmates” was part of the curriculum that Mercado taught.

A 2016 audit of EMCF by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), to gauge compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), awarded the facility high marks for having more than 90 cameras with no blind spots. But testimony at Mays’ trial revealed that some minimum-security areas, such as the 40-bed residential cottage to which he was assigned, did not have cameras, while video from cameras in other areas was erased after just 30 days of recorded footage.

Lt. Hector Smith was questioned about the security of employees coming to work and the potential for smuggling contraband that could be exchanged for sexual favors. He said security was extremely lax at EMCF.

“Here, you can drive your car into the facility, which is very, very strange,” Smith said.

According to a series of reports compiled in 2017 by NJ Advance Media, DOC officials had not publicly acknowledged the full scope of the sexual abuse problem at the prison even though another guard at the facility, Thomas Seguine, and institutional trade instructor Joel Herscap, both pleaded guilty to official misconduct that year and were sentenced to prison. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.44; Aug. 2017, p.63; July 2016, p.63]. 

As a result of the investigations, former DOC Commissioner Gary Lanigan had his re-nomination put on hold so that lawmakers could question him about the scandal. He retired in May 2018, and Governor Phil Murphy named Marcus Q. Hicks as acting commissioner. 

In May 2018, the DOJ opened its fourth civil rights investigation in three years at EMCF. Former state Attorney General Christopher Porrino had also ordered an independent investigation the year before, after which the state senate passed two bills in 2018 to address concerns regarding sexual abuse by prison staff: one formulated strict reporting requirements and the other limited cross-gender strip searches.

Michael Campion, head of the U.S. Attorney’s Civil Rights Unit, is conducting an inquiry at EMCF focused on “the institution’s ability to protect prisoners from sexual abuse ... to determine whether there are any systemic violations of the U.S. Constitution.”

Current New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal promised, “In the end, we all share the same objectives: to ensure safe, lawful and appropriate conditions of confinement at Edna Mahan, and to identify and resolve any issues that may be working against that effort.”

Hicks stated DOC officials have spoken with representatives of the DOJ’s civil rights investigation and will cooperate fully.

“We are trusted with the responsibility of protecting our inmate population and will implement the necessary and appropriate reforms to ensure the safety and security of the offenders in our care,” he said.

Spokeswoman Alexandra Altman added the DOC “is committed to holding officers to the highest standards and there will be serious consequences for those who jeopardize the safety and security of the offenders in our care.”

Sexual abuse by staff at EMCF has been documented since 1994, when guard Kevin Brodien admitted to a sexual relationship with a prisoner. Guard Stewart Sella allegedly raped prisoners Jacqueline Heggenmiller and Tammy Davis between 1997 and 1999, while another guard, Regina Davis, helped cover up the abuse. Both were fired in 2000 when the allegations finally reached then-DOC Director Dean Campbell.

“The claims of systemic abuse at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility were troubling not only because of the nature of the abuse, but because they were an open secret for far too long,” said state Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez.

“These women did not forfeit their humanity or civil rights when they were imprisoned,” agreed fellow state lawmaker Valerie Vainieri Huttle. 

The two legislators co-sponsored a bill to require the state’s Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy to set standards ensuring the safety of women prisoners, which would be monitored by unannounced visits and supplemented by random surveys to identify victims of sexual assault or misconduct. The bill was one of five the assemblywomen have introduced in the wake of the sex abuse scandal at EMCF.

Leslie Sinemus, Mays’ attorney, said she was planning to appeal the former guard’s conviction. But while she called the investigation flawed that led to charges against her client, she also said it proved that the DOC’s policies left prisoners at risk of sexual assault and guards at risk of being falsely accused. As a solution, she called for the use of body cameras for guards and more cameras to provide surveillance in all areas of the facility.

“These things need to happen, not only for the protection of the inmates but also for the protection of the officers,” Sinemus stated.

Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University who serves as director of the Project on Addressing Prison Rape, agreed there is a problem with sexual abuse at EMCF, including how prison officials corroborate such claims.

“Win, lose, or draw, whether it happened or didn’t happen, what you absolutely can say is they don’t take sex abuse in custody seriously,” Smith said. “Because if they did, they’d have different procedures in place.” 

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Sources: nj.com, mycentraljersey.com, womeninandbeyond.org, insidernj.com