NJ legislature to hold hearings on women’s prison where abuses took place

New Jersey
Edna Mahan inmate

Inmate Mary Tobin walks a puppy down a cell block hallway at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey on June 21, 2004. (AP Photo/Daniel Hulshizer, File)

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TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s State Assembly will hold hearings on a women’s prison where several guards have been charged with abuse.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks — whom both the assembly and state senate have called to either resign or be fired by Gov. Phil Murphy — will appear and answer questions at the hearing before the Assembly Judiciary Committee and Assembly Women and Children Committee in Trenton on Thursday, Apr. 8 to investigate continued allegations of abuses at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison.

Four correctional officers have been charged with abuses at the Hunterdon County facility. According to a state investigation, between approximately 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 11 and 1:15 a.m. on Jan. 12, a number of DOC officers and supervisors assigned to the facility conducted forced cell extractions of inmates located in the Restorative Housing Unit (RHU) complex.

A victim complaint alleged that one officer purposely didn’t record her extraction, in which she was “repeatedly struck with [the officers’] fists, although [the victim] was handcuffed and not resisting, in violation of clearly established DOC policies.”

A second victim, whom that officer was also assigned to, alleged that officers pepper sprayed her and that she was not given time to comply following the spraying, as is required by the DOC. Rather, the officers immediately entered her cell and forced her out.

During the extraction, an officer who was later charged by the state struck the victim in the face with a closed fist approximately 28 times, despite the victim not resisting. The victim’s injuries included a concussion.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said prosecutors found that guards tried to cover up an attack at the Mahan Facility by filing false reports.

“Edna Mahan has a long, ugly history— one that has justifiably attracted scrutiny from county, state, and federal investigators,” said Attorney General Grewal.

“That’s why we must do more than simply figure out what went wrong on Jan. 11. We must hold the responsible parties accountable, and we must fix the systemic failures that made this incident possible. I’m committed to using the full resources of my office and, with the assistance of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, we will tackle this problem head on.”

Dozens of corrections officers at the Clinton prison — New Jersey’s only women’s prison — were placed on paid leave in January, following allegations that staff brutally beat and sexually assaulted inmates there.

One woman, Ajila Nelson, told NJ.com that officers on Jan. 11 handcuffed her and others, before punching, kicking, stripping and dragging her to a shower, after which she said an unidentified male officer got on top of her and groped and sexually assaulted her.

A transgender woman incarcerated at the facility was beaten by a group of officers and three officers stomped on her head, her mother, Trimeka Rollins, told the newspaper. Her daughter’s knee was so badly damaged that she’s now using a wheelchair, Rollins said.

The Democrat-led State Senate passed the bipartisan resolution for Hicks to either resign or have Murphy fire him 35-0 in February. The resolution also calledon Murphy to transfer inmates to a safe facility and demands the Department of Corrections comply with the recommendations of the US Department of Justice which were issued more than six months ago.

Gov. Phil Murphy has stood by Hicks for the time being and named former state comptroller Matt Boxer as an independent investigator into the allegations.

Murphy, who described the officers’ actions as abhorrent and a violation of public trust in a statement, has continued to insist the state would hold anyone responsible to account.

“I understand from the attorney general’s announcement that the criminal investigation is ongoing, and I am confident that anyone who violated the law will be held accountable. Beyond the criminal investigation, we must have a full accounting of how this incident was able to happen so that we can put in place necessary reforms and safeguards. I am thankful to former State Comptroller Matt Boxer for taking on this crucial task.”

Hicks, rather than resign, announced the hiring of an outside consulting firm to assist with planned reforms at a Hunterdon County prison where three male guards are charged with misconduct in an attack on female inmates.

The Moss Group has been secured by the state’s DOC to “provide technical support in operational practice, policy development and implementation of identified solutions related to Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.” The state is also actively recruiting an assistant commissioner to handle women’s services within the state prison system.

The state’s DOC, in a statement to PIX11 News back in February, believe the Moss Group’s implementation of these reforms are necessary now and that removal of Commissioner Hicks would “only serve to stall this process.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin is calling for Hicks to provide answers at the hearing.

“I am extremely disturbed about the continued allegations of abuse at Edna Mahan,” Coughlin said. “A pattern appears to have developed at the facility, which raises the question of whether those supervising the prison are not doing nearly enough to protect its vulnerable inmates. We need answers and we need reform.”

The department of corrections has not yet responded to PIX11 News’ request for comment regarding Hicks’ appearance at the hearings.

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