Inside the trial at the center of N.J.’s prison sex abuse scandal

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What happened behind the walls of the Edna Mahan women’s prison? One officer’s trial comes to a close.

Two inmates said they welcomed the corrections officer’s advances. Three others said they were targeted or performed sex acts out of fear of reprisal from a man in uniform.

Either way, it would have been a crime, because inmates cannot legally consent to sex in prison.

But the officer, Jason Mays, insists they are all making it up.

Now a group of jurors is weighing whether to convict Mays of up to 15 charges including sexual assault, criminal sexual contact and official misconduct after a four-week trial at the Hunterdon County Superior Courthouse in Flemington.

There is no DNA evidence connecting Mays to the women who say he sexually assaulted them. Other prisoners testified some of the women accusing him were troublemakers, and there were no cameras in the places the abuse allegedly occurred.

How could a case of sex abuse at New Jersey’s only women’s prison — a place where every move is monitored, where inmates are supposed to be kept under lock and key — come down to their word against his?

mays.jpgJason Mays.  

“It’s almost counterintuitive,” Assistant Prosecutor Kelly Daniels said in closing arguments Tuesday. “How can a prison guard find secrecy, privacy and isolation with an inmate?”

That question is at the center of an ongoing criminal probe at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, where eight employees have been criminally charged with abusing inmates in the last two years alone.

The problems have prompted calls for reform at the facility and stalled the renomination of state Corrections Commissioner Gary Lanigan, who was hired by former Gov. Chris Christie and asked to stay on by Gov. Phil Murphy.

Corrections officials across the two administrations have said little about the issue, and court records in several of the criminal cases have been kept under seal. But the criminal trial brought inmates and officers under oath in front of a jury as they heard conflicting stories about what went on inside the women’s prison.

Mays is accused of abusing five women – four in a minimum-security building known as A Cottage in the summer of 2016 and a fifth far earlier, in the spring of 2010, inside a maximum-security facility, North Hall. 

NJ Advance Media is not identifying the women by name at the request of Judge Angela Borkowski and because the news organization does not typically identify alleged victims of sexual abuse. 

State failed to stop sex abuse, inmates and officers claim

Mays’ attorney, Leslie Sinemus, said several of the women may have cooked up the claims against Mays because he caught them stealing food or smoking and was aware they had been doing drugs.

She called three additional inmates and the officer himself as witnesses to support his defense. One of those witnesses testified she heard one alleged victim say “she was going to set Officer Mays up.”

Sinemus told the jurors her client was the lone officer inside a housing unit at a facility where inmates often had free rein. 

“I don’t want to say the asylum, but they control the prison,” she said of the inmates. 

Each of the five women also took the stand, giving accounts ranging from romantic encounters to coerced sex acts. 

One woman, identified in the indictment as Jane Doe 1, said the officer caught her stealing a pie from a prison kitchen and threatened to write her up unless she undressed in front of him during count, the time when an officer performs checks cell by cell to account for all the inmates in a unit. 

In another instance, she said, the officer came in her cell and grabbed her breasts.

“He licked my neck,” she said. “He smelled like alcohol. I was extremely skeeved out.”

None of the women immediately reported the alleged abuse, so investigators only became aware of their claims months or even years later. Jane Doe 1 testified she feared retaliation. 

“I felt powerless,” she said. “He’s my authority figure. With a swipe of a pen, my whole life could be taken away.”

Another woman, Jane Doe 5, claimed she and Mays were briefly romantically involved in the spring of 2010.

“When I got the attention he was giving me, I was excited,” she said. “Like yeah, I was happy, to be honest.”

Under state law, inmates cannot consent to sex with corrections employees because of the power imbalance. Prosecutors introduced as evidence the woman’s calendar, where she had marked the day the pair allegedly had sex with lines and hearts. 

Sinemus noted Jane Doe 5 is now one of three of the women who have filed civil lawsuits seeking money from the state over Mays’ alleged behavior.

The officer’s attorney, who referred to the inmates as “complainants” rather than “victims” throughout the proceedings, faulted internal investigators and prosecutors for failing to obtain DNA evidence or other material that might prove or disprove the women’s claims.

“Hold them responsible for a poor investigation,” she said. “You are left with not a single shred of physical evidence that corroborates the complainants’ testimonies.”

Daniels, the prosecutor, countered that several of the women identified distinguishing characteristics of the officer’s genitals.

She said it is not uncommon in rape cases for victims to be hesitant to come forward, noting that several of the women who testified against Mays did so only after they were approached by investigators. 

“Sexual offenses are crimes of secrecy,” she said. “They’re not offenses that happen in public eye, no matter who the victim is. So this is no different.”

Jurors began deliberating in Mays’ case late Tuesday. Two other employees at the prison have pleaded guilty to official misconduct over sex abuse claims, and five more have charges pending.

S.P. Sullivan may be reached at ssullivan@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter. Find NJ.com on Facebook.