Report: N.J.’s women’s prison making ‘steady progress’ on reforms but serious problems remain

A federal monitor found inmates were “weaponizing” PREA and using it as a way to threaten officers and retaliate against them


By S.P. Sullivan
nj.com
        
CLINTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s troubled women’s prison — where there has long been accusations of abuse and exploitation of prisoners by staff — is making “steady progress” in addressing problems that festered for decades, according to a new report by a monitor assigned to the prison by federal investigators.

Still, cultural problems and staffing issues persist, wrote Jane Parnell, the monitor assigned to the prison.

The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women is slated for closure, though Gov. Phil Murphy has not announced the timeline. Meanwhile, the prison is implementing reforms as part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, which accused the state of widespread civil rights abuses.

The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility's front gate and guardhouse as guards stand outside. Wednesday, August 4, 2021.
The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility's front gate and guardhouse as guards stand outside. Wednesday, August 4, 2021. (Aristide Economopoulos)

Released Friday, the report by Parnell, a veteran corrections official in Washington State, praised new “state-of-the-art” video surveillance systems and better oversight of officers and inmates.

Parnell also highlighted a new body-worn camera requirement for corrections officers and a host of programs meant to assist victims of sexual assault and trauma.

Those changes, among others, demonstrated a commitment by state officials “to accomplish the culture change needed to achieve compliance” with a federal consent agreement, which hasn’t always been the case.

In a series of reports over the last several years, NJ Advance Media documented widespread sexual and physical abuse of prisoners that have cost New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars in lawsuits and outside investigations.

In 2018, the Justice Department launched its probe, later concluding state authorities were indifferent to the abuse behind bars. Last year, Murphy announced plans to shutter the prison, a more-than-century-old campus on a sprawling patch of land in Hunterdon County.

A spokeswoman for Murphy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report Friday.

Dan Sperrazza, the Department of Correction’s external affairs executive director, said the department “is fully committed to the closure of Edna Mahan Correction Facility,” though he did not comment on when it could.

Sperrazza said since the monitor has been put in place the department has made “significant progress” in addressing issues at the prison.

“NJDOC continues to prioritize improving the health, safety, and overall operations at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. The Department is working tirelessly to improve the culture and morale of the incarcerated population and staff,” he said in a statement.

Despite some improvements, the federal monitor’s report found, serious problems still persist.

The report says the “most prevalent and vociferous” message the monitor heard from staff and prisoners was the filing of false allegations of sexual assault by prisoners against officers.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is a federal law that protects prisoners from sexual abuse and mandates provisions for how allegations are investigated.

At Edna Mahan, Parnell found prisoners were “weaponizing” PREA and using it as a way to threaten officers and retaliate against them, which she wrote is not uncommon when a settlement has recently been reached regarding sexual abuse at a correctional facility, like what occurred at Edna Mahan.

Prisoners, staff and inmates all told the federal monitor that PREA is often used as a verb — as in, “I’m going to PREA you,” a threat made by inmates to retaliate against staff or obtain a better housing assignment.

Parnell wrote that consequences of such false allegations can be “devastating.” She said it can diminish the response to credible allegations, creates stress for officers and other prisoners and is time-consuming to investigate.

The report noted one prisoner made a sexual abuse complaint that was later substantiated, but initially felt “discounted as a victim” because of the perception created by false allegations.

Parnell suggested the DOC “increase the speed/efficiency in the investigation process” and to hold prisoners accountable who file false allegations.

Parnell singled acting Corrections Commissioner Victoria Kuhn, who has won praise from prisoner advocates and state corrections unions alike, noting in her report that Kuhn’s nomination by the governor to the top prison post “publicly demonstrates his commitment to accomplish the culture change needed to achieve compliance” with the consent agreement.

But while much of the prison’s leadership “is new and are anxious to change the ‘culture’ of the prison to a culture of safety and mutual respect,” the report found, there remains a culture of resistance to change.

“In some cases, there has been an attitude of ‘that’s the way it is by (corrections leaders),” Parnell wrote.
“There is a real or imagined sense that ‘That’s the way it has always been, and nothing can be done about it’ interferes with NJDOC’s ability to accomplish things in a timely manner.”

Because of its remote location and the haze of scandal still lingering over the place, Edna Mahan struggles to recruit corrections officers, the report said.

Staff told Parnell that Edna Mahan is where you come to get promoted, do your time, and leave” to work at a prison closer to home.

“Some staff noted that ‘working at Edna Mahan is sometimes considered ‘the bottom of the barrel’ as a job assignment in NJDOC,” Parnell wrote.

The prison itself, which opened in 1913, is in “poor condition” and “contributed to low morale among both prisoners and staff” because of constant failings such as lack of hot water, mold and power outages, according to Parnell.

One major described the prison as a “pit of a place to work in.”

Parnell has visited the prison multiple times in recent months and has interviewed prisoners and staff. She also requested and reviewed a long list of DOC documents and policies. The state is paying Parnell $184,620 until July 2022 for her services.

She will oversee the prison’s progress for at least three years as part of the consent decree.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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