Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Court filings allege that male corrections officers sexually assaulted female inmates. Items were taken from a woman who was allegedly forced to beg and do pushups to get them back.

Two lawsuits allege sexual abuse of female inmates by two male corrections officers at the Edna Mahon Correctional Facility for Woman in Union Township, Hunterdon County.

One lawsuit, presently under appeal, was filed in federal court in 2012 by inmate Christine Bernat. Bernat's suit alleged that Senior Corrections Officer Erick Melgar "sexually assaulted" her by "groping her, pinching her nipples, kissing her, having her position herself in a sexual way, having her perform oral sex, and having her engage in unprotected intercourse."  He also allegedly threw ice at her and hit her with a ruler. 

Bernat also claimed that Melgar was assisted by fellow Corrections Officer Janette Bennett who acted as a look-out when Melgar was in an inmate's cell.  According to Bernat's summary judgment opposition brief, Bennett "would laugh when assisting Melgar and would comment 'this is great, we get paid for this.'"

Bernat said that Edna Mahon Administrator William Hauck and other officials knew that Melgar was having sexual contact with female inmates prior to Bernat's 2009 arrival at the facility but failed to take preventative action.  Hauck vehemently denied this and claimed that the first he knew of any alleged sexual assaults was when he was notified by a staff psychologist.  He said that upon notification he immediately reassigned Melgar to another unit and began termination proceedings that ultimately resulted in Melgar's and Bennett's firing.

After Melgar was reassigned, Sergeant Jeffrey S. Ellis allegedly transmitted Melgar's messages to Bernat and Bennett allegedly convinced other inmates to make positive statements about Melgar in order to interfere with an investigation into Melgar's alleged conduct

Bernat claimed that her reporting of the incidents caused prison officials, including Sergeant Lance Johnson, to retaliate against her.  She alleged that Johnson told her that she would have to "take Officer Melgar's [censored word] out of her mouth" if she wanted the harassment to stop.

Also during Melgar's reassignment, Senior Corrections Officer Alfred E. Smalls allegedly "sexually assaulted" Bernat by kissing her and grabbing her breasts in a private bathroom reserved for correction officers.  Smalls then allegedly bribed Bernat "with prison perks and contraband." 

Document filed with Bernat's lawsuit include a July 2013 Appellate Division decision that upheld Smalls' December 30, 2010 termination from Edna Mahan. According to the decision, the main witness against Smalls was a female inmate identified only by her initials "C.B."  C.B. said that she kissed Smalls in an "officer's bathroom . . . where Smalls grabbed her breast."  She said that there were four incidents where the pair kissed and that she "made a joke out of" smelling like Smalls' cologne after one of the kissing incidents.  She said that Smalls gave her tobacco products that she sold to other inmates.

Smalls denied C.B.'s allegations and pointed to "a prior false allegations" that C.B. had made,  but Administrative Law Judge Laura Sanders found it "to have little probative weight."  Ultimately, Judge Sanders found C.B.'s credibility to be greater than Small's and recommended his removal.  The Civil Service Commission, over Small's objections, agreed and terminated Small's employment.

Bernat's lawsuit was dismissed on summary judgment on April 20, 2016 and she appealed the dismissal on May 19, 2016 and the matter is presently pending in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.   

In a second lawsuit, pending in Hunterdon County Superior Court, Inmates Therese Afdahl, Tasha Canada, Barbara Clark, Michelle Ellis, Joann Satorious and Robin Streater claimed that Melgar sexually abused them.  For example, Streater claimed that Melgar "slammed her up against the closet and desk area and came close behind her and began rubbing his erect penis on her buttocks."  Streater also claimed that Melgar would ransack her cell, steal food items she purchased and made her beg and do pushups to get them back.  It was Streater who advised the staff psychologist of the alleged abuse who passed that information on to Hauck.

The State has filed a motion for summary judgment that will be heard on June 24, 2016 by Judge Michael F. O'Neill, sitting in Flemington, and a trial is scheduled for August 1, 2016 if the matter survives summary judgment.