NJ prison abuse: 6 bills aimed at overhauling ‘depravities’ advance

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)

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey corrections officers must wear body cameras and prison guard retaliation against inmates who report abuse or violence would be prohibited under a package of a half-dozen bills an Assembly committee advanced Tuesday.

The Democrat-led Assembly Judiciary Committee passed the six bills during a remote hearing that stemmed from an ongoing investigation into the state’s only women’s prison, the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton.

The bills are the latest legislative action aimed at ending what lawmakers have called the “depravities” at the prison, where 10 guards face criminal charges brought by the state attorney general.

The following measures are included in the package: 

  • A-4681 expands eligibility for certain inmates to participate in residential community release programs; modifies DOC reporting requirements concerning capacity of these programs.
  • A-4785 expands scope of inmate reentry assistance and benefits.
  • A-5039 requires correctional police officers to wear body worn cameras.
  • A-5749 concerns sexual abuse investigations in state correctional facilities
  • A-5750 prohibits retaliation against inmates in State correctional facilities who report sexual abuse; criminalizes retaliation and failure to report abuse.
  • A-5751 expands state corrections officers training to include topics contributing to their core mission of treating inmates with dignity, fairness, and respect.

“The federal report and our committee’s inquiry shed light on various ways the women prisoners at Edna Mahan were exposed to continued sexual and physical abuses that persisted for decades despite all of the press coverage, calls for change, and enactment of the Dignity Act,” said Assembly Raj Mukherji, one of the co-sponsors. “We were alarmed to learn about the various ways in which they were let down by the oversight mechanisms that were supposed to protect them. We heard testimony in committee and firsthand observations from inmates while touring Edna Mahan that women don’t report abuse because they fear reprisal, because investigations are inadequate when abuse is reported, because supervision is inadequate, and because the reporting mechanisms aren’t effective or truly confidential.”

This comes just a week after it was revealed that New Jersey taxpayers are on the hook for about $1.3 million dollars in fees to a criminal justice consultant to help the Department of Corrections amid a criminal investigation into what the attorney general said was a “brutal attack” on inmates at Edna Mahan on Jan. 11.

The department announced in February that it had hired the Moss Group as a consultant to provide technical support, policy development and other advice at the facility.

A total of 10 officers have been charged in the most recent incident at Edna Mahan, which occurred in the late night hours between Jan. 11 and 12, according to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

Between approximately 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 11 and 1:15 a.m. on Jan. 12, New Jersey DOC officers and supervisors assigned to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton conducted forced cell extractions of inmates located in the Restorative Housing Unit complex.

These are the latest arrests in an investigation that has seem the state’s Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks come under fire. Edna Mahan has a long history of abusive conduct by officers, with the state settling for just over $20 million with over 20 victims dating back to 2014 earlier in April.

New Jersey Department of Corrections Ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti announced his resignation effective Aug. 1 on April 9 after tense hearings in front of the state assembly’s judiciary and women & children committees just a day before. Several state politicians had called for DiBenedetti’s resignation after the hearings, in which he admitted to not having been to Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in over a year and could not name a policy proposal he had come up with to fix the problems.

Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, who has faced calls for either his firing or resignation from every member of the New Jersey Senate and Assembly, said that he finally has the ability to make what he says are real changes to address the issues going on at the prison.

The Democrat-led State Senate passed a bipartisan resolution for Hicks to either resign or have New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy fire him 35-0 in February. The resolution also called on 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 the aforementioned Moss Group to assist with planned reforms. The firm’s goal is 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.

Spokespersons for the New Jersey Department of Corrections did not respond to PIX11 News’ request for comment on the Democrats’ proposals.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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