More cameras, 'special victims unit' coming to N.J. prisons

Corrections Commissioner Victoria Kuhn said the moves were part of "lifting the veil of secrecy that has hung over this department, and Edna, for far too long"


By S.P. Sullivan
NJ.com

UNION TOWNSHIP, N.J. — More than a year after a night of violence at New Jersey’s women’s prison led to criminal charges against 15 officers and staff, state officials on Friday outlined a raft of reforms enacted under a federal monitor at the scandal-plagued Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.

“I firmly believe this is a time for new beginnings, both with Edna and department-wide,” acting Corrections Commissioner Victoria Kuhn said at the public meeting, held as part of a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.
The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. (Photo/Aristide Economopoulos via MCT)

A 2020 federal civil rights inquiry found that rampant sexual abuse and exploitation of prisoners by staff was “an open secret,” threatening the state with a civil rights lawsuit.

Then, while under federal monitoring, a group of officers, led by some prison officials, staged a middle-of-the-night raid on a special housing unit where several women said they were severely beaten.

In the year since, more than 400 staff members at Edna Mahan have been retrained in federal standards against sexual abuse and exploitation, Kuhn said.

Officers who deal directly with prisoners are now all outfitted with body cameras and, as of December, the prison was equipped with 355 stationary cameras.

Edna Mahan has a new board of trustees and has revamped trauma counseling and other services for the women housed there.

And Kuhn announced the prison system’s Special Investigations Division, which handles internal investigations inside the walls, is now being run by a former prosecutor who tried and convicted several officers accused of sexually assaulting inmates.

Kuhn said the moves were part of “lifting the veil of secrecy that has hung over this department, and Edna, for far too long.”

It marks a change for Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, which previously declined to testify at legislative oversight hearings and had placed the blame for conditions at the prison on their predecessors.

Officials at Friday’s hearing had no new information on when Edna Mahan will be shut down, as Murphy promised last June.

“We all want the facility to close,” Kuhn said. “It’s time to start a new beginning for those housed at Edna.

“But we also want to do it right and that is going to take a bit of time.”

In the meantime, Kuhn has named as an assistant commissioner Kelly Daniels, a former assistant prosecutor in Hunterdon County, where she led a sex crimes unit and prosecuted Edna Mahan officers accused of abuse.

Daniels’ first task is starting up a “special victims unit” to investigate sexual assault behind bars, Kuhn said.

Jane Parnell, a former Oregon corrections official appointed as federal monitor over Edna Mahan, said the women who live there have told her investigators they’ve seen marked improvement in conditions in recent months.

“Their biggest fear (expressed) to us was, ‘Will those changes last?’” Parnell said, adding that the reforms being implemented must go “beyond the settlement agreement.”

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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