On June 1, 2018, the New Jersey Department of Corrections agreed to pay $35,000 to a female inmate who said that she was groped and sexually assaulted by male prison guards.

In her suit, Christine Bernat, an inmate at the Hunterdon County-based Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, claimed 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.

The case is captioned Bernat v. New Jersey Department of Corrections, et al, Federal Case No. 3:12-cv-02649 and Bernat’s attorney was Jeffrey S. Mandel of Morristown.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Bernat’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that the $35,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the Department of Corrections or any of its officials.  (Note: According to the release, Melgar, Bennett and Smalls, in their individual capacities, were not released from Bernat’s lawsuit.) All that is known for sure is that Ocean or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Bernat $35,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]