NJ women’s prison abuse: Justice Department, state agree to monitor at Edna Mahan in settlement

New Jersey

A screenshot from one of the videos released from Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. (Office of the Attorney General)

TRENTON, N.J. — To protect inmates in New Jersey’s only women’s prison from sexual abuse the U.S. Justice Department and the state Department of Corrections reached an agreement to install an independent monitor, among other reforms.

Officials said Tuesday that the agreement must still be approved by a federal judge.

“The proposed consent decree terms include federal monitoring, increased staff training and oversight, inmate education on sexual assault and harassment, increased reporting mechanisms that allow for anonymity, and ensuring new and existing policies are gender-informed,” a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Corrections said in a statement.

The agreement calls for establishing confidential methods for inmates to report sexual abuse, as well as protections against retaliation for reporting abuse. It also calls for an end to cross-gender strip searches or body cavity searches. There are over 160 provisions in the settlement.

The accord also requires more transparency through public meetings with stakeholders, including one-time prisoners at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

“I am thankful to the U.S. Justice Department for acting here in what appears to be full and good faith, proposing a consent decree that contains more than 100 provisions meant to bring long-needed reforms to Edna Mahan. Importantly, there will also be a federal monitor in place to make sure inmates’ basic rights are protected and that transparency is maintained,” said State Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

Many of the provisions were in a package of bills advanced by the New Jersey Legislature earlier this year.

The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey will retain jurisdiction over the matter.

“Our civil rights investigation revealed systemic and long-standing deficiencies in training, supervision, and reporting at Edna Mahan, deficiencies that allowed the sexual abuse of prisoners to occur unabated,” Acting U.S. Attorney Rachael A. Honig said. “The state of New Jersey now has agreed to remediate these deficiencies by entering into this consent decree, and we look forward to continuing to work with the state and the Department of Corrections to ensure that no prisoner faces this kind of abuse in the future, whether at Edna Mahan or any other facility that might replace it.”

The DOJ began the investigation in April 2018 under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which authorizes the Department of Justice to take action to address a pattern or practice of deprivation of constitutional rights of individuals confined to state or local government-run correctional facilities. In April 2020, the Department of Justice provided the state written notice of the alleged unlawful conditions and remedial measures necessary to address them. The department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that Edna Mahan violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution by failing to protect prisoners from sexual abuse by staff.

“Gov. Murphy believes that today’s consent decree between the Department of Justice and New Jersey Department of Corrections is a critical step forward in breaking the cycle of misconduct to better serve the needs of incarcerated women entrusted to the State’s care,” a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement to PIX11 News. “Gov. Murphy remains committed to working with his partners in the Legislature to responsibly close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.”

The spokesperson for the NJ Department of Corrections says that this will not change Gov. Murphy’s plans to close the facility.

You can read the entire settlement here.

Murphy’s Republican opponent in his re-election bid this November, Jack Ciattarelli, has hit him frequently on the scandal and continued that in a statement Tuesday.

“His well-documented pattern of abandoning women who are victims of abuse, harassment, and even rape, while protecting the powerful men responsible is shameful and inexcusable,” said Stami Williams, Ciattarelli’s communications director, in a statement. “Just today, another scathing report by the Biden Justice Department said female prisoners in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility are still in serious danger, yet instead of staying here to solve the problem, Gov. Murphy is off on a 10-day vacation to his multi-million dollar Italian Villa. New Jersey deserves better.”

The treatment of prisoners at Edna Mahan has been one of the most hotly debated topics in Trenton in 2021.

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.

In July, Grewal released 10 videos that give a look at what happened on the night of Jan. 11, 2021 into the morning hours which led to a series of alleged assaults at the state’s only women’s prison and the state department of corrections chief stepping down.

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.

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 resigned in June, faced months calls for either his firing or resignation from every member of the New Jersey Senate and Assembly.

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.

This comes just months 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.

Murphy announced his intention to close Edna Mahan on Monday, after reviewing a new 75-page investigative report he commissioned on the January attack by mostly male prison guards on female inmates.

Among the new details in the document: some female inmates were forced to strip and submit to searches in front of male guards.

The 75-page report is based on interviews with some officers — as well as Hicks — and the corrections ombudsperson, videos, and 21,000 documents and emails.

It offers details about the Jan. 11 and 12 attacks on what Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said were at least six inmates. Among its findings are that guards used excessive force on inmates and filed false reports after removing inmates from their cells. The staff also failed to bar male guards from viewing female inmates during strip searches, in violation of policy.

The report also offers new details about what led up to the attack and how it unfolded.

It says that in the days before the attack, there was “a coordinated effort” by some inmates to “splash” prison guards, a term referring to throwing liquids, including urine and feces, at them.

Murphy said in June he was “deeply disturbed and disgusted” by the attacks against inmates.

“Individuals in state custody deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and the officers involved in this incident, both directly and indirectly, abused their power to send a message that they were in charge,” he said.

The prison in Clinton, Hunterdon County, more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of New York City, dates to 1913. Grewal has said it has an “ugly history,” part of which was documented in an April 2020 U.S Justice Department report that found a “culture of acceptance” of sexual abuse of inmates.

Victoria Kuhn, current chief of staff for the Departments of Corrections, is serving as acting commissioner.

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

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