Senator: We must continue to change a culture of cruelty, racism and neglect at Edna Mahan

Senator Linda Greenstein | May 29, 2020 | Star-Ledger |

Two years ago, Star-Ledger/NJ.com investigation revealed an appalling pattern of sexual assault, rape and dehumanization at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County, our state’s only women’s prison. We learned that a deep-rooted, systemic and institutionalized failure of culture and policy has persisted at the prison for decades.

Shocked by the allegations, I called a hearing of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee in February 2018. We heard from Professor Brenda Smith of the Washington College of Law, American University, a nationally recognized expert; the union representing the corrections officers; and many of the non-profit advocacy organizations that represent the inmates, as well as the prisoners themselves. We did not hear from the commissioner of corrections, who declined to attend.

Our hearing yielded several important pieces of legislation, including Senate bill 2522, limiting cross-gender strip searches; Senate bill 2521, requiring reporting of inmate abuse by employees; Senate bill 2532, requiring correctional officers receive 20 hours in-service training, including four hours in prevention of sexual misconduct; and Senate bill 2533, requiring the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy to provide services to inmates. All of these bills have only recently been signed into law.

As a result of our hearing, it appeared that a small door had been opened into the closed environment of Edna Mahan. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of New Jersey opened an investigation into the prison.

In April of this year, a scathing report was issued by the DOJ, which found that there is reasonable cause to believe that conditions at Edna Mahan violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution due to sexual abuse of prisoners by staff. (This Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and grants due process even to convicted criminals.)

From October 2016 to November 2019, five corrections officers and one civilian employee were convicted or pleaded guilty to the sexual abuse of 10 women. One judge said that a “pervasive culture” at Edna Mahan allowed corrections officers to abuse their positions of authority.

Among the findings of the DOJ report are that prisoners are unaware of their right to report incidents of abuse or retaliation, and those who do report are subject to isolation and harsh conditions; investigations of allegations of sexual abuse are inadequate; the prison fails to properly secure its physical plant, including inadequate camera coverage; officials at the prison know of the risks and disregard them, while others are not properly being made aware of risks; and Department of Corrections and the Edna Mahan administration fail to remedy systemic deficiencies.

As a result of the DOJ report, our Law and Public Safety Committee held another hearing on May 12, 2020, and we heard much of the same information that we heard two years ago. Prisoners are treated in unacceptable and often illegal ways. There is an absence of confidentiality and a lack of appropriate supervision and oversight. Along with Senator Nia Gill, I have now proposed the creation of a commission to study sexual assault, misconduct and harassment in the prisons and to provide appropriate oversight.

It will not be easy to change the culture that has created Edna Mahan. As Bonnie Kerness, director of the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch said at the hearing, “How do you legislate away a culture of cruelty, racism, mental and physical health neglect and sexual misconduct, all conducted with impunity in a system hidden from public scrutiny? … The Department of Corrections is more than a set of institutions, it is also a state of mind.”

Now that we know what the conditions are, I believe that New Jersey is poised to lead the country in preventing the sexual abuse of girls and women in NJ prisons.

And as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we may actually have an opportunity to make huge changes in our system of mass incarceration.

We are already seeing measures to depopulate overcrowded prisons to mitigate the spread of the virus. We are looking at furloughs and even shortening sentences for non-violent inmates, who will likely die behind bars if forced to stay in these hotbeds of the pandemic.

New Jersey has the highest rate of inmate deaths from coronavirus in the country. As with the problems at Edna Mahan, the Department of Corrections has not shown the appropriate urgency in dealing with these problems.

We need an effective justice system that protects and enhances public safety while respecting human dignity.

 

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