COVID-19 Spreads in Women’s Prison Where Sexual Abuse Prompted Federal Probe, Say Inmates and Advocates

State says first round of testing completed for inmates and staff statewide

In a women’s prison where federal authorities said the state failed to protect prisoners from sexual abuse, COVID-19 is spreading because of low supplies of masks, poor enforcement of social distancing, and inadequate quarantining of infected prisoners, according to emails from inmates received by prisoner advocates.

Two prisoners had died from COVID-19 at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women near Clinton as of Monday, while 114 inmates and 77 staff had been confirmed with the virus, according to the latest data from the Department of Corrections.

The prisoners’ accounts follow a report that New Jersey’s prisons overall have the second-highest COVID-19 infection rate of any state, and come amid accusations that Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order to reduce the infection rate by furloughing some prisoners has not resulted in the temporary release of as many prisoners as advocates say would help to slow the spread of the coronavirus in prisons.

In April, a federal investigation found five corrections officers and one civilian employee sexually abused more than 10 women at the prison between October 2016 and November 2019. The U.S. Department of Justice report concluded that the DOC failed to protect women from sexual abuse by members of staff.

‘Problematic’ behavior by staff members

The DOC said in a statement issued at about the same time as the DOJ report that it had introduced reforms that would make it easier for inmates to report sexual abuse; would do more to educate staff and prisoners on the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, and had set up an early-warning system to identify “problematic” behavior by staffers.

Sen. Linda Greenstein, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, said she was not convinced that the DOC’s statement was actually a response to the federal report. Greenstein (D-Mercer and Middlesex), who has led the Senate’s investigation into the Mahan abuse allegations, said the statement by DOC Commissioner Marcus Hicks cited various panels that were set up to deal with the allegations, predating the federal report.

“It’s some of the things over the last year or two that they put into place, as opposed to an actual response to that report,” Greenstein said in an interview. “My take was that most of those different groups and committees were formed but had not really started to do that much work.”

Greenstein said she had never had the chance in her committee to ask Hicks about the reforms but she said he had specified reforms to conditions at Mahan, including new safeguards against rape, in a letter sent in October 2019.

While advocates from the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch previously focused on the sexual abuse report, concern has now shifted to increasing complaints from prisoners, via emails sent to the advocates, that the novel coronavirus is spreading inside the prison because of poor testing, distancing and quarantining procedures.

Prisoner: Two masks a week

“They are giving us two masks once a week which are very cheap and fall apart while you wear them,” one inmate wrote anonymously on May 1 in an email to the AFSC. “I found a girl washing her mask under the faucet because she felt being used over and over was no good. They need to open this lock-down and let us go and get fresh air. Once a day for an hour is not enough.”

For inmates who have tested positive for the virus, the prison is releasing them from quarantine while they are still infectious, the inmate said.

“They are not keeping inmates isolated long enough which is why this thing is spreading so fast because they put them in units with inmates who are not sick instead of keeping them isolated for longer than one week,” she wrote.

Another inmate wrote, also on May 1, that all prisoners are given masks but many do not wear them. “Instead they loiter in each other’s cells and sit together in laundry rooms, etc.”

Prisoners are diagnosed for COVID-19 with temperature tests and, if determined to be positive, confined to a separate wing of the prison, the inmate wrote. “The ‘diagnosis’ consists of taking one’s temperature and, if the patient is febrile, they are presumed to be positive and quarantined.”

A third inmate accused prison authorities of isolating some prisoners for longer than the two-week COVID incubation period, while others who had tested positive were released from quarantine after only seven days. “How long can these people keep all the inmates who have tested negative under quarantine?” that prisoner wrote.

Critical of prison response

The prison’s response to the pandemic is also reflected in other parts of the New Jersey correctional system, wrote Jean Ross and Bonnie Kerness of the AFSC, in a summary of the conditions that have been reported by prisoners.

They said the virus could enter a prison via visiting community members; spread within the prison because of unsanitary conditions, and return to the community via visitors.

They argued that a “significant reduction” in the prison population would be the only meaningful precondition to controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the prison system. And they said the DOC’s decision in May to test all prisoners was not enough to halt the spread, because the system was not equipped to separate those who tested positive or may have been exposed to the virus.

In an atmosphere of “fear and panic,”  the consequences included multiple moves of prisoners through the system; the transfer of ill or potentially ill prisoners to units designed for solitary confinement, to cells shared with other prisoners, or to cells that were unsanitized, the AFSC’s report said.

The DOC said on Monday that it has completed the first round of testing for all inmates and staff. Anyone who tests positive or who has COVID-like symptoms is placed in a medical isolation unit controlled by Rutgers University Correctional Healthcare, which develops individual treatment plans. Asymptomatic positives are housed separately from those in the medical isolation unit.

The DOC suspended visits to all prisons on March 14 in an attempt to stop the virus spreading.

Inmates who have been exposed to individuals who are COVID-19 positive are placed on quarantine units at the direction of the medical provider.

Staff who test positive must be cleared to return to work, and so far 530 of them have done so, the DOC said.

Social distancing in a prison “has its challenges,” said Liz Velez, a spokeswoman for the DOC. In response, the department has changed work rotations for staff to “reduce foot traffic.” She said no inmates from Mahan were hospitalized as of Monday.