An overhaul is underway at the notorious New Jersey women’s prison where a violent incident last year led to physical and sexual abuse charges against 15 corrections staff.
Although Gov. Phil Murphy has said he eventually plans to close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, there is a new federal monitor overseeing operations for now.
Body-worn cameras are outfitted on all staff who interact with prisoners. New programs are being rolled out to counsel women on trauma and assist them after their release. And one of the county prosecutors who investigated corrections officers’ criminal actions is now running the Department of Corrections’ Special Investigations Division.
Those were some of the announcements made by state corrections officials at a meeting Friday to address how the state is handling the aftermath of a scandal that rocked the Murphy Administration.
NJ Advance Media broke the story last year about a series of violent “cell extractions” on Jan. 11, 2021 in which women were pulled out of their cells against their will, and beaten and sexually assaulted. One officer allegedly punched a woman in the head and neck 28 times.
A state report commissioned by the Murphy Administration found that correctional officers and their superiors then covered up what happened. Dozens of staffers were suspended, and 15 -- including an associate administrator at the prison -- were criminally charged. The scandal also led to the resignation of the state corrections commissioner, Marcus Hicks.
The U.S. Department of Justice investigated conditions at Edna Mahan, finding that prisoners’ constitutional rights were violated because they were not protected from physical and sexual abuse by prison staff. The state and federal governments settled, resulting in the three-year appointment of a federal monitor, Jane Parnell, to oversee the facility. She will issue a public report every six months.
“It will take time to turn and make the kind of cultural changes, the lasting cultural changes, that need to be made,” Parnell said at the meeting Friday.
Murphy’s long-term solution -- closing the prison -- is years away from being implemented. The state contracted with a consultant for $1.3 million to assist with reforms at the prison. It will also sub-contract with another consultant to find a location for a new prison and plan what it will look like. Initial recommendations are expected by late March, said Victoria Kuhn, acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections.
“Over the years, I too have complained about conditions at Edna,” said Kuhn, who was chief of staff under the previous commissioner. “I did not have authority at that time to make changes, but now I do, and this team does, and we are making those changes. It is time for new beginnings.”
Among the changes at Edna Mahan announced Friday by Kuhn and other officials: An improved law library, a newly created Incarcerated Person Advisory Board, additional training for staff, and the installation of a point person to ensure that Edna Mahan is compliant with federal sexual abuse reporting standards. There are more, and better quality feminine hygiene products available now, and commissary items have been improved, they said.
The prison has a sordid history. Seven officers and a civilian staffer were charged with crimes relating to the sexual abuse of more than 10 prisoners between 2016 and 2018.
Last year the state agreed to pay $21 million to settle at least 22 lawsuits filed by those who alleged abuse at the prison.