N.J. continuously failed to keep women prisoners safe from sexual abuse, DOJ says

The U.S. Department of Justice announced new reforms to overhaul the Edna Mahan prison

By: - August 10, 2021 7:28 pm

(Getty Images)

After years of repeated sexual abuse committed at the hands of corrections officers in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, New Jersey officials reached an agreement with the federal government to overhaul the women’s prison system.

On Tuesday the U.S. Department of Justice announced new reforms would be implemented at Edna Mahan, the state’s only women’s prison, and at any facility that replaces it when its expected closure occurs. The reforms will also be mandated at any prisons where the prisoners are transferred.

Federal officials say the state repeatedly failed to protect women prisoners from sexual abuse, even after changes were made in light of a damning April 2020 report that found rampant sexual abuse at the Hunterdon County facility and violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

“These violations were not an aberration but rather a pattern or practice of abuse,” Acting U.S. District Attorney Rachael A. Honig said during a call with reporters. “The goal of this agreement is to ensure this horrific conduct never happens again.”

Under the consent decree — the agreement between the DOJ and New Jersey, which a federal judge must approve — the prison would be overhauled to develop new processes for prisoners to report attacks without fear of retaliation. It includes more than 100 provisions, justice officials said.

All prisoners, whether male or female, deserve to be safe.

– Kristen Clarke, assistant U.S. attorney general

Consent decrees have historically been used by the federal government to force reforms when government entities are found to have violated federal law. The newest one was filed Tuesday along with a complaint in U.S. District Court in Newark saying the prison’s “inadequate systems for preventing, detecting and responding to sexual abuse … are longstanding” and that the state didn’t take “action sufficient” to correct it.

The state’s current policies and practices, the complaint continues, enabled the abuse and discouraged anyone from reporting it. Officials noted the blind spots in camera coverage and other abandoned spaces in the facility “provide staff opportunities to sexually abuse prisoners.”

Although these deficiencies were known “for a substantial period of time,” the complaint reads, the state was “deliberately indifferent to prisoner health and safety.”

The consent decree calls for an independent monitor to oversee implementation of the reforms. The Justice Department and the state have jointly proposed Jane Parnell, a former Washington prison superintendent, to take the post for three years.

New policies will be implemented to ensure staff is held accountable for misconduct, enhance appropriate prisoner supervision, and create confidential methods of reporting abuse, justice officials said.

And public meetings would be held with key stakeholders, including former inmates, prison advocates, and family members of currently incarcerated individuals.

“All prisoners, whether male or female, deserve to be safe,” said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the justice department’s civil rights division. “Edna Mahan staff have failed to implement reasonable reforms.”

Investigations prompt closure, more oversight

Allegations of sexual abuse have rocked the prison for years, prompting federal officials to step in and investigate the facility. Between 2016 and 2019, six correction officers and one civilian staffer were convicted or pleaded guilty to charges of sexual abuse, linked to 10 prisoners.

And in January, a series of brutal cell extractions left multiple women with broken bones, and at least one claimed she was sexually assaulted during the extractions. More than 30 staffers were suspended, 10 corrections employees were hit with criminal charges, and Marcus Hicks, then-head of the state Department of Corrections, stepped down.

“The Justice Department believes full implementation of the reforms in the proposed consent decree will ensure that women at Edna Mahan will receive one of the basic protections they are entitled to under the Constitution — to be reasonable safe from staff sexual abuse,” said Clarke.

After the January attacks, Gov. Phil Murphy called for an investigation into the prison that was completed by former state Comptroller Matt Boxer. The findings led Murphy to announced Edna Mahan’s eventual closure.

The governor, a first-term Democrat running for re-election in November, was slammed by lawmakers for resisting calls to fire Hicks, who stepped down on June 8. Murphy said at the time he was “very disturbed” by Boxer’s report.

A Murphy spokeswoman called the consent decree “a critical step forward in breaking the cycle of misconduct to better serve the needs of incarcerated women entrusted to the state’s care.”

“Governor Murphy remains committed to working with his partners in the Legislature to responsibly close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women,” said spokeswoman Alexanda Altman.

Altman provided no timeline for the prison’s closure.

A state Department of Corrections spokesperson did not respond for request for comment.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who advocates for female inmates, released a statement commending the consent decree for bringing “long-needed reforms to Edna Mahan.”

“This consent decree must be only the first step in making needed changes to protect women prisoners of New Jersey, who all too often have found themselves subject to sexual assault, verbal abuse and emotional trauma at the hands of corrections officers bent on doing harm,” she said. “We must do all we can to safeguard those incarcerated, and to treat them with dignity.”


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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.