In stunning move, NJ governor to close state's only prison for women
Gov. Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed and disgusted" after reviewing a new investigative report detailing attacks on inmates earlier this year
By Ted Sherman
TRENTON — In the wake of a series of rapes, attacks and other alleged abuse at New Jersey’s only women’s prison, Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday announced his intention to shut down the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County.
“Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women has a long history of abusive incidents predating our Administration, and we must now commit ourselves to completely breaking this pattern of misconduct to better serve incarcerated women entrusted to the state’s care,” Murphy said in a statement calling for its closing.
At the same time, the governor also released an investigative report prepared by former State Comptroller Matt Boxer and the law firm Lowenstein Sandler on cell extractions at the facility that occurred on Jan. 11 and 12 of this year.
“After reading the report and its recommendations, I have decided that the only path forward is to responsibly close the facility,” the governor said.
Parts of that report were redacted for public release. (Review the report below.)
Referring to the attacks that took place in January, Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed and disgusted” by what happened at the prison, in what has been described as a night of violence inside a prison noted for continuing allegations of sexual abuse, exploitation and physical violence against prisoners by corrections officers and civilian staff.
“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,” Murphy said. “The excessive use of force, as outlined in the report, cannot and will not be tolerated by my administration.”
Noting that the facility “has a long history of abusive incidents,” he said the state must commit to “completely breaking this pattern of misconduct to better serve incarcerated women entrusted to the state’s care.”
The plan is to close down the complex and relocate inmates to a new facility or other facilities.
“While this will not happen overnight, I intend to work with legislative leadership during the current budget cycle to allocate funding to begin this multi-year process,” he said.
How that will all play out is unclear.
Republican state Sen. Kristin Corrado of Passaic County, who has repeatedly criticized the administration over its response to the continuing sting of the incidents at Edna Mahan, said the governor and his corrections commissioner failed to hold abusive staff accountable.
“It’s unclear how closing the facility at taxpayer expense will remedy the leadership concerns that will persist regardless of where the inmates are located,” Corrado said. “The building didn’t fail these women. The Murphy administration did.”
But state Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, chair of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, said shutting down is “the best and only decision to be made,” considering the sordid history there.
“The doors of Edna Mahan should be closed and the women must be transferred away from a facility where too many suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse for far too long,” Greenstein said. “Our committee conducted hearings last spring that further documented the assaults by guards, the attempted cover-up by their colleagues and the failure by top officials to hold them accountable.”
She said they came to the conclusion that the facility should be closed.
The incident that sparked the outside investigation occurred only this past January, during the current administration. At the same time, state Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks has worked at the department for some 15 years.
The facility, which opened more than a century ago in 1913, was originally known as the “State Reformatory for Women” and is located in rural Hunterdon County. Approximately 372 prisoners are currently held there, including 94 prisoners in the minimum security complex and 278 in the maximum security area.
Between 2016 and 2018, six correctional officers and one civilian staff member were charged with crimes relating to sexual abuse of prisoners, including sexual assault, conspiracy to commit sexual assault, criminal sexual contact and official misconduct.
More than 30 staff members have been suspended at the prison over the January incident and 10 officers have been charged over inmate beatings or for aiding in a coverup.
One inmate told NJ Advance Media that she was beaten and sexually assaulted by a corrections officer during a series of cell extractions. The Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office and the state attorney general’s office both have reported ongoing criminal investigations.
The possibility of closing Edna Mahan has been under study for some time. Last month, Hicks, the corrections commissioner, told the Assembly Budget Committee that the state might consider shutting down the prison following the continuing allegations of abuse behind bars.
“That is on the table,” Hicks said, without offering further details. He said closure was just one of many changes that was being explored by an outside consultant.
Even before the release Monday of the investigative report, records obtained earlier by NJ Advance Media revealed that officers lied on incident reports filed in the wake of the January cell extractions in the so-called Restorative Housing Unit, or RHU, where prisoners are placed because of disciplinary infractions.
Those records described a relatively quiet night of securing unruly prisoners. Officers claimed several inmates refused “verbal orders” but were “secured properly” by a team clad in riot gear. Pepper spray was reportedly used in four of the six incidents, but a prison nurse evaluated the inmates, the records said.
Prosecutors later disclosed that one inmate suffered a broken orbital bone in her skull. Another was punched 28 times in the head. Still more inmates told NJ Advance Media they were kicked and beaten with plastic shields.
None of that was logged in the official reports.
NJ Advance Media has previously reported that January’s ordeal was spurred by some prisoners allegedly spraying unknown liquids and bodily fluids on corrections staff, prompting the forced removals to search cells for contraband.
According to the report released on Monday, those incidents, known as “splashing,” contributed to “substantial frustration” on the part of corrections officers, who were upset that inmates were not being criminally charged for spraying officers, or that the disciplinary charges they received were sometimes downgraded.
The report said officers felt that inmates were “not being held accountable for their actions” and that their supervisors failed to protect them. Union officials told investigators “things reached a boiling point.”
All of that came at the height of the COVID pandemic, amid what was called “heightened emotion among staff.” According to the report, one supervisor summarized things by saying that the RHU was “in a dire state” by early January.
The report said the cell extractions were recorded, but on many of the videos it was difficult to see exactly what is happening because the recording officer stood behind other officers, frequently filming officers’ backs instead of capturing the prisoner and what was happening to her.
While the officers are supposed to be identified by name before cell extractions are conducted, this did not occur on the videos. Additionally, certain events were not recorded at all, said the report.
In one case, reports filed by the two sergeants state that an inmate sustained no injuries during the cell extraction. A medical report the next day, however, noted she had “superficial scratches and visible purple bruising on her hand.” A nurse later determined that she broke her arm and needed a cast.
The failures of state authorities to reign in criminal behavior by staff at Edna Mahan has so far cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, from a $21 million settlement over claims of sexual and physical abuse to millions paid to outside law firms and consultants, according to public records reviewed by NJ Advance Media.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice said it had reasonable cause to believe that the New Jersey Department of Corrections “fails to keep prisoners at Edna Mahan safe from sexual abuse by staff.”
Reforms with the federal government have not been finalized.
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