NJ prison abuse: Assembly advances 5 bills meant to reform Edna Mahan, including body cameras on COs

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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 the New Jersey State Assembly overwhelmingly approved Thursday.

The Democrat-led Assembly passed the bills during a legislative session 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 pattern of abuse, including rampant sexual abuse, and systemic failures at Edna Mahan call out for legislative action,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “When the women at Edna Mahan needed protection, their calls and complaints went unanswered. Cultural change and additional accountability and oversight are needed to safeguard the basic human rights of these inmates.

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. (Passed 63-11-1)
  • 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.

A sixth bill which expands scope of inmate reentry assistance and benefits, did not pass with the rest of the package.

A bill package is the first of a two-part assembly legislative package addressing the concerns at Edna Mahan. The Assembly Women and Children Committee will convene in June to review additional measures concerning Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.

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.

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.

A spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Corrections said it’s department policy to not comment on pending legislation.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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