NJ releases footage of cell extractions that doomed women's prison
About 90 minutes of footage can be viewed on the attorney general's website
By Ted Sherman
TRENTON — The images are violent.
In one, a group of six corrections officers in single file, a blue-gloved hand of each on the shoulder of the officer in the front, march down a cellblock corridor carrying shields and wearing helmets with face shields as they are followed by an unseen guard with a hand-held camera.
They stop at a cell where the female inmate inside is ordered to put her hands out.
“I’ve got to pee,” she yells back.
“Last chance,” the inmate is warned.
One of the officers in the line clenches his fist, open and closed, and shaking his arms out, not unlike a fighter preparing for battle.
Pepper spray is released into the cell and they rush in.
About 90 minutes of video recordings documenting a series of alleged assaults at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women during the early morning of Jan. 12 were released by the state Attorney General’s office Wednesday evening in connection with a series of so-called “cell extractions” that led to a number of serious injuries of inmates at the hands of corrections officers.
The violent extractions, now the subject of a spiraling criminal investigation, were sparked by some of the inmates squirting an unknown white liquid through cracks in their cell doors at officers in the Restorative Housing Unit, a special wing of the prison for inmates that present a security risk.
The videos can be viewed on the attorney general’s website.
The footage released Wednesday shows officers punching an inmate about the head, yelling “stop resisting!” as she gasps for air following the cloud of pepper spray. State prosecutors say she was punched 28 times.
Other clips depict chaotic scenes of inmates being forcibly removed from their cells. In the videos, some of the women attempt to fight off officers as they teared at their clothes, allegedly in search of contraband.
“Why is a man ripping my clothes off?” said one woman, who claimed her arm was broken as she spit and cursed at the officers.
“They f—ing jumped me!” she screamed.
So far, 10 corrections officers have been charged in an ongoing criminal investigation of the incident, which led to the resignation of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks.
The videos were requested by NJ Advance Media and other news organizations under the state’s Open Public Records Act, after Attorney General Gurbir Grewal pledged to make public surveillance camera and other footage of the incident that subsequently led to a widening criminal probe and ultimately sparked a decision by Gov. Phil Murphy to shut down facility.
The release of those videos was held up after one of the officers charged in the case sought to keep the footage from the public, arguing his constitutional rights would be violated if it was released before trial.
But the Attorney General’s office said it made the decision to release the recordings in the wake of a Supreme Court order earlier on Wednesday.
The recordings that were made available, however, appeared to represent only a fraction of the videos available to investigators. An investigative report prepared by former State Comptroller Matt Boxer and the law firm Lowenstein Sandler on cell extractions at the facility released by the governor earlier this month indicated that over 20 hours of video had been collected.
The worst of the violence happened outside the frame of security cameras and camcorders held by supervisors, state prosecutors say. They also allege sergeants and lieutenants charged with making sure officers followed protocol deliberately helped cover up brutal beatings of prisoners.
The governor has said he was “deeply disturbed and disgusted” by what happened at the prison, in what has been described as a night of violence inside a prison noted for continuing allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation and physical violence against prisoners by corrections officers and civilian staff.
According to the Attorney General’s office, between approximately 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 11 and 1:15 a.m. on Jan. 12, 2021, Department of Corrections officers and supervisors assigned to the state’s only women’s prison conducted forced cell extractions of inmates located in the Restorative Housing Unit complex, where prisoners are placed because of disciplinary infraction.
At least six women have said they were injured. One inmate told NJ Advance Media that she was beaten and sexually assaulted by a corrections officer.
Records obtained earlier by NJ Advance Media revealed that officers lied on incident reports filed in the wake of the January cell extractions. Those records described a relatively quiet night of securing unruly prisoners. Officers claimed several inmates refused “verbal orders” but were “secured properly” by a team clad in riot gear. Pepper spray was reportedly used in four of the six incidents, but a prison nurse evaluated the inmates, the records said.
NJ Advance Media has previously reported that January’s incident was spurred by some prisoners allegedly spraying unknown liquids and bodily fluids on corrections staff, prompting the forced removals to search cells for contraband.
The Boxer report ordered by the governor’s office found that those incidents, known as “splashing,” contributed to “substantial frustration” on the part of corrections officers, who were upset that inmates were not being criminally charged for spraying officers, or that the disciplinary charges they received were sometimes downgraded.
Officials said on Wednesday that during the cell extractions, certain officers were assigned to record the extractions using hand-held cameras.
The 10 video recordings that were released included five recordings made with hand-held cameras related to extractions of five different inmates. The recordings also included five video clips from a stationary surveillance camera in the hallway outside of the cells where the extractions occurred.
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