DOC: 2 women at N.J. prison pregnant after consensual sex between inmates
The state's policy does not require transgender inmates to undergo gender-reassignment surgery to be held in the facility
By Joe Atmonavage
TRENTON, N.J. — Two women incarcerated at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility — the state’s only female prison — have become pregnant after having sex with a transgender inmate, NJ Advance Media has learned.
It appears the women became pregnant from “consensual sexual relationships with another incarcerated person,” Dan Sperrazza, the DOC’s external affairs executive director, said.
Although Sperrazza did not identify the inmates in question, Edna Mahan houses 27 prisoners who identify as transgender. He said the investigation is ongoing.
“While DOC cannot comment on any specific disciplinary or housing decisions that may be considered in light of these events,” Sperrazza said, “the Department always reserves all options to ensure the health and safety of the individuals in its custody.”
On Wednesday, NJ Advance Media obtained multiple letters written by the prisoners involved discussing the pregnancies.
The revelation presents a thorny problem for state corrections officials, who have been grappling with the sexual abuse and exploitation of inmates by staff at the prison for the past decade.
The developments follow a settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union ( ACLU) of New Jersey last year, which stipulates that transgender prisoners should be housed in line with their gender identity.
That settlement stemmed from a lawsuit by a transgender woman who was sent to a men’s prison, where she alleged she received inadequate medical care and was abused by male inmates and staff.
Advocates hailed the agreement as necessary reform that moved New Jersey to the forefront of trans rights along with states like California and Massachusetts that have implemented policies on how transgender prisoners should be housed and medically treated.
The majority of transgender inmates in the United States are housed in prisons according to their gender assigned at birth and are often subjected to violence and harassment, according to an NBC News investigation published in 2020.
On Tuesday, the ACLU of New Jersey did not respond to questions regarding the pregnancies, but its legal director Jeanne LoCicero said the current policy “reflects best practices to ensure the health, dignity, and safety of people in [DOC] custody.”
“(It) is in line with New Jersey’s strong anti-discrimination laws that prevent discrimination and harassment on the basis of gender identity,” she said in a statement.
Union officials, who consistently opposed the move, said the current policy remains concerning for its officers and the incarcerated population.
“We opposed this policy change believing it would be detrimental to the general population of female inmates being housed at Edna Mahan and also bring added stress to our correctional police officers assigned to this institution,” said William Sullivan, president of NJ PBA Local 105, the union that represents the majority of correctional officers.
Even among inmates, there is disagreement over whether some transgender prisoners should be at the facility.
Last year, two Edna Mahan prisoners filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to immediately remove “any and all male pre-operative transgender inmates,” alleging that some had harassed them and engaged in sexual contact with other women.
In an affidavit filed in support of the lawsuit, one transgender prisoner who had gender-conforming surgery before she was incarcerated said the DOC’s current policy is “very questionable.”
“I believe it is highly inappropriate for the NJDOC to place pre-operative male-to-female allegedly transgender inmates in a women’s prison,” said the woman, who has been locked up for more than 20 years.
Under the new policy, when placing a transgender prisoner in a facility, the DOC should consider “all aspects of an inmate’s social and medical transition,” including behavioral history, institutional adjustment, overall demeanor, likely interactions with others, and feelings of safety.
Like with any prisoner, the policy also states that the DOC must consider whether an individual’s placement would present management or security problems in a facility. The placement is reassessed twice a year.
If the committee tasked with housing transgender prisoners has a “substantiated, credible, and non-discriminatory basis” to believe that someone is not sincere, it can ask further questions and allow the person to provide more information before they decide, according to the policy.
The settlement agreement mandated the DOC keep the policy in place for at least one year before it can reassess its effectiveness. It is unclear how this will affect it moving forward.
Longtime prison advocate Bonnie Kerness said the DOC and the newly-formed Edna Mahan Board of Trustees, which supervises the prison, should examine the current policy and find ways to improve it.
“There needs to be an appropriate process that protects the cis women and the trans women already there,” said Kerness, program director for the nonprofit American Friends Service Committee’s prison program, which advocates for prisoners.
An independent monitor continues to oversee the prison under an agreement signed in August between the state and the U.S. Department of Justice after federal authorities found correctional officers had sexually abused female prisoners.
Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy announced plans to close the facility after officials learned that corrections officers had violently extracted women from their cells and brutalized them n the middle of the night. The incident led to filing criminal charges against 15 officers and forced DOC Commissioner Marcus Hicks to resign.
It is unclear when the facility will close.
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