DOJ and New Jersey agree on reforms for notorious women’s prison

Washington — The Justice Department and New Jersey have reached an agreement to implement a series of reforms to better protect inmates from sexual abuse by staff at a notorious women’s prison, officials announced Tuesday. 

If approved by a federal judge, the agreement would implement new policies at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility such as confidential reporting methods for sexual abuse and improved measures to hold staff accountable. An independent monitor would oversee and assess the state’s compliance with the agreement. 

“All prisoners, whether male or female, deserve to be safe from sexual assault and other forms of sexual abuse by staff and to be protected from retaliation for reporting abuse,” Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, told reporters Tuesday. 

Last year, the Justice Department concluded a two-year investigation, saying there was reasonable cause to believe the state’s Department of Corrections failed to protect inmates from sexual abuse by staff.

In June, Governor Phil Murphy said he planned to close the facility, saying in a statement that he was “deeply disturbed and disgusted by the horrific attacks that took place.” If the prison closes, the Justice Department said the new agreement will apply to any facility that takes its place. 

“The agreement marks a significant step in our journey to transform the culture of Edna Mahan with a tangible plan and federal monitoring that ensures women in the state’s care are treated with dignity and respect,” Victoria Kuhn, New Jersey’s acting corrections commissioner, said in a news release.  

Prison Violence New Jersey
The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey, on June 8, 2021.  Seth Wenig / AP

The department alleged that a “culture of acceptance” toward sexual abuse persisted at the prison for years. One of the examples was a vocational instructor who pleaded guilty to trading smuggled cigarettes for sex with two inmates at the prison. The report said correctional officers routinely referred to the women as “b******.”

Earlier this year, several correctional officers were charged after removing inmates from their cells and allegedly attacking them in January. One former employee is accused of pepper-spraying an inmate and punching her in the face 28 times.

Women who reported the abuse were taken for a medical exam while handcuffed and shackled, which was followed by 72 hours of solitary confinement before being interviewed about the complaint, the department said.

“Women prisoners are highly likely to have suffered physical and sexual abuse before their incarceration, which renders them particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and the trauma that often follows,” Clarke said Tuesday. “Given this heightened vulnerability, it’s essential that we take steps to prevent this violence.”

Clare Hymes contributed reporting.