A former state corrections officer convicted of sexually assaulting inmates at New Jersey’s women’s prison — where federal investigators are probing accusations of widespread abuse — was sentenced to 16 years on the other side of the bars on Thursday.
Jason Mays, 46, had been accused of sexually abusing five inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. Prosecutors said he coerced some of the women into sexual acts with threats of disciplinary action.
He was convicted on charges related to the abuse of two of the inmates in May following a month-long trial and a week of jury deliberations.
Mays, a Hillside resident, is among seven Edna Mahan employees accused of sexually assaulting inmates at the prison over the last two years. He was ensnared in an ongoing criminal probe by the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office.
Under a sentence handed down by Judge Angela Borkowski on Thursday, Mays will also be subject to lifetime parole supervision and will be required to register as a sex offender.
The sentence is by far the stiffest sanction levied against an employee found by the spiraling criminal inquiry to have abused their authority and preyed on women at the prison.
Three other employees who admitted abusing inmates instead of going to trial pleaded guilty to official misconduct charges. Under plea deals, they will not have to register as sex offenders, and one has already received parole, public records show.
Lawsuit claims prison officials knew about sexual assaults and physical abuse as early as 2008.
At his trial, Mays took the witness stand to deny the charges against him, telling jurors “I have never been inappropriate with any inmate at any time.”
He was acquitted on charges related to three of the five inmates prosecutors argued were victims of his abuse. Under state law, any sexual contact between an inmate and an officer is a crime because prisoners cannot legally consent.
Mays’ attorney, Leslie Sinemus, said the former officer submitted 37 letters of support from former coworkers, supervisors and friends and family attesting to his character.
“He maintains his innocence, I still believe in his innocence, and I’m devastated by this sentencing,” she said in a telephone interview. “There are people who are guilty of this stuff. I get it. But to this day I do not believe Jason Mays was one of them.”
Hunterdon County Prosecutor Anthony Kearns said following the sentencing that the letters of support were “subjective opinions” about who the officer was “as a man outside the walls” of the prison.
“Objectively the abuse of his authority over the women in the prison is especially heinous and cruel because the women prisoners were both powerless and helpless while subject to his ultimate authority,” Kearns said.
Sinemus said her client planned on appealing his conviction.
Three other officers at the prison — Brian Ambroise, Joel Mercado and Ronald Coleman — still face trials.
The Union Township prison is now the subject of multiple inquiries into the treatment of inmates, including a civil rights probe being conducted by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark.
A person familiar with the matter told NJ Advance Media that federal investigators have began interviewing corrections staff as part of their inquiry. That person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.