Fourteen Officials Indicted in New Jersey Women’s Prison Abuse Scandal, $21 Million Class-Action Settlement Reached
by Ashleigh N. Dye
On September 27, 2022, a New Jersey grand jury indicted 14 officials at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility (CF), the state’s only women’s prison. It was the latest fallout from a years-long sex abuse scandal that led Gov. Phil Murphy (D) to announce the prison will be shuttered. The state has also agreed to pay nearly $21 million to settle a suit by a class of about 1,000 current and former prisoners.
The staffers’ charges stem from a night of violent cell extractions in January 2021 that left several prisoners injured. Former Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Marcus Hicks resigned after the incident. [See: PLN, Dec. 2021, p.56.] The prison’s then-acting superintendent, Sean St. Paul, 56, is among those charged with conspiracy, official misconduct, aggravated assault, and tampering with public records. The others were: Amir E. Bethea, 37; Andraia Bridges, 45; Brandon Burgos, 22; Luis A. Garcia, 25; Jose Irizarry, 38; Courey James, 33; Desiree Lewis, 33; Eddie Molina, 44; Gustavo Sarmiento, 29; Marika Sprow, 33; Ryan Valentin, 44; Anthony J. Valvano, 40; and Tara Wallace, 37.
Meanwhile, payments are going out under the nearly $21 million settlement, which a state court approved in November 2021. It resolves a class-action lawsuit over allegations of sexual harassment and abuse at the lockup, as well as retaliation for reporting it.
Plaintiffs in the suit alleged that staffers were abusing prisoners since at least 2014. Nearly $9.85 million of the settlement total went to 22 women who filed individual lawsuits over sexual abuse they allegedly suffered. Those suits were then made part of a class-action filed by other prisoners, which DOC settled with an additional $7,985,600 in compensation for them, plus $3 million in attorney’s fees and costs.
The settlement used a Tier system to determine compensation. Class members in Tier 1 included anyone held at the prison since 2014; each is eligible to receive $1,000, plus $20 per month of incarceration. Tier 2 included prisoners who were sexually harassed; each is eligible for $4,500 after submitting corroborating documentation. Tier 3 included those who were sexually abused; they receive payments up to $250,000 with both documentation and a hearing.
In addition, the settlement awarded $50,000 Incentive Compensation for each of the named plaintiffs, who served as class representatives: Tamasa Nobles, Tawana Murphy, Linda Dougherty, Marianne Brown, and Judith Vazquez.
Importantly, the agreement gave DOC a year to outfit guards with body-worn cameras. Another 355 stationary cameras will also be installed in the prison, and there will be a new board of trustees, plus new staff to provide prisoners with trauma counseling.
Class counsel is provided by attorneys Oliver Barry of Barry, Corrado & Grassi PC in Wildwood, Martin Schrama of Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville, and David Cedar of Williams Cedar LLC in West Haddonfield, as well as Philadelphia attorney Mark Frost. See: A.F. v. N.J. Dep’t of Corr., N.J. Super. (Hunterdon Cty. Law Div.), Case No. HNT-L-359-17.
The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) also reached a Consent Decree with DOC in August 2021, after a two-year investigation confirmed the prison promoted a culture that accepted sexual abuse, allowing multiple assaults that violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. [See: PLN, Oct. 2020, p.30.]
Under that Decree, DOC must overcome short-staffing problems to protect prisoners from sexual abuse with appropriate supervision. The agency must also provide effective and confidential methods for reporting sexual abuse when it occurs, including protection from retaliation. The provisions transfer to any new facility that might replace Edna Mahan CF and will be monitored for three years.
The monitor is former Washington Corrections Center for Women superintendent Jane Parnell. She made her first report in April 2022 to the federal court for the District of New Jersey, which is overseeing the case. While praising the new cameras, Parnell said more must be done to change the prison’s culture, which is marred by false allegations of sex abuse by prisoners and an attitude among DOC employees that this is “the way it has always been, and nothing can be done about it.” See: USA v. New Jersey, USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 3:21-cv-15031.
No timeline has been announced for closing the 109-year-old prison, nor any plans for some 400 prisoners held there. But new DOC Commissioner Victoria Kuhn voiced support for closure during her confirmation hearing before state lawmakers, who made her appointment official on May 26, 2022. Kuhn, who was supported by the guards’ union, vowed “to establish a culture of dignity and safety” at the prison. She formerly served as Chief of Staff under Hicks. He held the same position under his predecessor, former Commissioner Gary Lanigan, who retired in 2018 as the scandal at Edna Mahan CF unfolded.
Additional sources: Courier News and Home News Tribune, N.J. Advance Media, North Jersey Media Group
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