One woman was punched 28 times by a prison guard as she was pinned to the wall of her cell, trying in vain to shield her face from the next blow. She wound up with a concussion, a state investigator said.
Other inmates’ eyes were flooded with pepper spray even before they had a chance to comply with orders shouted at midnight by correction officers dressed in riot gear.
Two supervisors tried to cover their tracks by filing false reports after the inmates were attacked in January at a chronically troubled women’s prison in New Jersey, the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, according to the state’s attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal.
On Thursday, three guards — including the two supervisors — were charged with crimes that carry mandatory five-year penalties as part of a wide-ranging investigation into episodes that took place over two days last month.
Mr. Grewal said charges against additional officers were likely.
“All of our residents have a right to be treated with basic decency and all officers have an obligation to avoid force, except when absolutely necessary,” Mr. Grewal said. “Those principles don’t just apply in our streets and in our schools, but also in our prisons.”
The state has also suspended the administrator of the prison and 31 officers.
The president of the union that represents state correction officers, William Sullivan, called the allegations “disturbing,” and said the union supports a thorough investigation “before any judgments are made.”
“The legal process should proceed as anticipated to ensure the facts surrounding these allegations are fully ascertained so that justice may ultimately prevail,” Mr. Sullivan said.
The arrests come less than 10 months after the Justice Department released a report that outlined “systemic failures” at Edna Mahan, the state’s only women’s prison. Protected by a “culture of acceptance,” guards regularly sexually assaulted female inmates, a pattern federal investigators deemed so prevalent that it was found to violate constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment.
As a result of the findings, the state was ordered by the Justice Department to address the problems, but has yet to complete the corrective action. The list of remedial action includes adding cameras that are regularly monitored, making staffing adjustments, creating a way for prisoners to report abuse without fear of retaliation, and demolishing or securing prison buildings that “provide opportunities for sexual abuse.”
Aides to Gov. Philip D. Murphy did not respond Thursday to questions about why the reforms outlined by the Justice Department had not been fully implemented. Officials with the department could not be immediately reached for comment.
“Any abuse of power is abhorrent and violates the public trust, and can never be tolerated or excused,” Mr. Murphy said in a statement after Thursday’s charges were announced. “Beyond the criminal investigation, we must have a full accounting of how this incident was able to happen so that we can put in place necessary reforms and safeguards.”
Last week, Mr. Murphy appointed a former comptroller to conduct an investigation separate from Mr. Grewal’s.
Democrats in the State Senate, who have held two hearings over the last several years related to past allegations of abuse at Edna Mahan, have called for the immediate removal of the commissioner of corrections, Marcus O. Hicks.
“I’m tired of assessing what’s wrong here,” Senator Linda R. Greenstein, a Democrat who leads the Senate’s law and public safety committee, said earlier this week. “Clearly there’s a lot wrong.”
Thursday’s charges were based on interviews with prisoners as well as surveillance footage and video taken by officers, investigators said; the videos, Mr. Grewal said, would eventually be released publicly.
“We must fix the systemic failures that made this incident possible,” he said in announcing the charges.
Trouble had been brewing all day in the Restorative Housing Unit, an area for women charged with violating prison policy, when guards dressed in riot gear arrived at the unit shortly before midnight on Jan. 11 to remove women from several cells — a procedure known as “forced cell extractions.”
Two women known to dislike each other fought after being placed together in a single cell. In the afternoon, another woman, angered that her cell was searched while she was out, began throwing food. By bedtime on Jan. 11, only half the women on the floor had gotten dinner and no one had received nightly medications, according to two women who offered detailed accounts of the day.
The chaos that followed with guards left at least six female prisoners with injuries, including a broken eye socket and a concussion, state officials said.
In the days after the incident, women began reporting the beatings to a state ombudsman and prison justice groups.
“Please send help,” read a letter mailed to the director of the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch. “They are really SERIOUSLY beating these women to DEATH.”