New panel will study reforms at troubled NJ women's prison

The commission will examine the sexual abuse and exploitation of inmates following a report that found widespread problems at the state's women's prison


By S.P. Sullivan
NJ Advance Media Group

FLEMINGTON, N.J. — A new commission will examine the sexual abuse and exploitation of New Jersey prisoners following a scathing U.S. Justice Department report that found widespread problems at the state’s women’s prison.

The state Assembly on Thursday gave final passage to a resolution creating the Commission to Protect New Jersey Inmates from Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.

The Justice Department investigation focused on conditions at Edna Mahan, which is the state’s only women’s facility, but the commission will look at issues across all of the state’s prisons. (Photo/Michael Mancuso of NJ.com via TNS)
The Justice Department investigation focused on conditions at Edna Mahan, which is the state’s only women’s facility, but the commission will look at issues across all of the state’s prisons. (Photo/Michael Mancuso of NJ.com via TNS)

The 17-member panel will consist of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, appointees from the Department of Corrections, the state attorney general, the Department of Children and Families, and the state public defender, as well as former inmates, corrections officers and civil rights advocates.

Lawmakers approved the panel after an April report from the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey found sex abuse at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women was “an open secret” that violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

The federal probe followed a series of NJ Advance Media reports showing problems at the Hunterdon County prison were far wider than corrections officials had publicly acknowledged.

The Justice Department investigation focused on conditions at Edna Mahan, which is the state’s only women’s facility, but the commission will look at issues across all of the state’s prisons.

“While we have enacted multiple pieces of legislation to address issues of sexual assault and misconduct at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, it is abundantly clear that more needs to be done,” said state Sen. Linda Greenstein, the head of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, in a statement.

Authorities in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration placed blame for the problems on previous administrations and say they’ve already implemented a host of reforms, including a “third-party all female” board of trustees at Edna Mahan, more surveillance cameras and a pilot program for corrections officers to wear body cameras.

But they declined to testify at three public hearings where former prisoners complained of male and female officers who sexually assaulted inmates, groped prisoners and demanded sexual favors for access to essential items, including sanitary pads.

“A woman does not lose her value as a human being when incarcerated, nor does she forfeit control over her body. We must address the practices and procedures that allow the pervasive culture of rape and sexual assault which gives staff the opportunity and audacity to abuse their authority by preying on vulnerable women for sexual gratification.

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©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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