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AG: Top women’s prison boss charged in attack by guards

December 16, 2021 GMT

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A “brutal” attack on inmates by guards at New Jersey’s only women’s prison has resulted in misconduct and other charges for the prison’s top official, the state’s acting attorney general said Wednesday.

Four other corrections officers were also charged, bringing the total number of officials facing criminal charges to 15.

“We are holding accountable everyone who was involved in January’s brutal assaults, from the line officers working the cell block to the highest-ranking prison official on duty that night,” acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck said in a statement.

It’s the latest development in a nearly yearlong investigation that authorities say still wasn’t over as of Wednesday. The probe has had wide-ranging fallout, including the departure of the state’s corrections commissioner and Gov. Phil Murphy’s declaration that he will close the Edna Mahan Correction Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey, where the alleged attack unfolded.

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Sean St. Paul, who was serving as an administrator at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, was charged by complaint with official misconduct, conspiracy and tampering with public records, Bruck said.

St. Paul is no longer employed at the prison but was in charge when guards forcibly removed women from their cells — so-called forced extractions — in January, according to authorities. He did not make required notifications about injuries that victims sustained, according to Bruck, while also sending an email to superiors that reported false information and concealing the force that was used against some victims.

He also falsely said that inmates apologized to him, Bruck said.

A message seeking comment on St. Paul’s behalf was left with his attorney.

Also charged on Wednesday were Maj. Ryan Valentin, Senior Correctional Police Officer Desiree Lewis, Senior Correctional Police Officer Brandon Burgos and Senior Correctional Police Officer Marika Sprow. Each faces a charge of tampering with records. Valentin faces misconduct and conspiracy charges as well. Lewis was charged with aggravated assault while Burgos and Sprow don’t face additional charges.

Burgos’ attorney, Anthony Iacullo, says his client maintains his innocence.

“Officer Burgos performed his duties on that day and every day, to the best of his ability. We are confident that when this matter is addressed in a court of law, Officer Burgos will be exonerated,” Iacullo said in an email.

Valentin’s attorney, Timothy Donohue, said his client will fight the charges.

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“It is truly unfortunate that the Attorney General’s office has chosen to file a complaint against my client based upon innuendo and unfounded speculation. Major Valentin will vigorously contest this charge and we will be vindicated once all the facts are heard,” Donohue said.

Lewis’ attorney, Michael Rubas, said in an email that his client will plead not guilty.

“The year-long delay in the filing of these charges speaks volumes about the strength of the State’s case,” Rubas said.

Sprow’s attorney Matthew Troiano said his client will fight the charges against her.

A picture of what happened in January at the prison has emerged over the year, based on accounts from law enforcement, videos released by authorities showing the extractions and a report commissioned by the governor.

One video clip, for example, showed five prison guards wearing helmets, chest, back and shoulder armor filing into the cell of a woman at the prison and striking and punching the inmate in the head. “Stop punching me in my face!” the woman calls out.

The governor’s report said in June that that guards used excessive force on inmates and filed false reports after removing inmates from their cells. The staff also failed to bar male guards from viewing female inmates during strip searches, in violation of policy.

It also shed light on what led up to the attack and how it unfolded, saying that in the days before the attack, there was “a coordinated effort” by some inmates to “splash” prison guards. That’s a term referring to throwing liquids, including urine and feces, at them. The report notes that the head of the prison guards’ labor union said officers had been upset, and things were at a “boiling point.”

Attorneys for some of the other guards have also said their clients will fight the charges.

The incident led Murphy, a Democrat reelected this year, to declare he will close the prison, although a timeline for that is unclear.

It also resulted in lawmakers calling for the ouster of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, who resigned in June.

The U.S. Justice Department also entered into a consent agreement with the state stemming from other longstanding troubles at the prison, namely that officials there did not protect inmates’ constitutional rights by failing to protect them from sexual abuse. The August agreement resulted in a federal monitor at the prison.

The state’s charges stemming from January don’t include any sexual assault claims.