New Jersey corrections officials are working with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle what one lawmaker called a “pretty scathing” complaint that the state women’s prison failed to protect inmates from sexual abuse by guards.
The DOJ and the state earlier this week reached a tentative settlement over a federal report that alleges a dozen conditions that allowed for sexual assaults at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, violating prisoners’ civil rights.
Testifying Thursday before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Marcus Hicks, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, said he could not discuss the specifics of the settlement, but that it would likely include federal monitors to oversee that remedial actions are put in place and followed.
“While that’s being reviewed, obviously, by counsel, I can’t talk specifically about what’s in it,” Hicks said. “What I can say is … the agreement includes very specific recommendations that DOJ expects the Department of Corrections to implement. One thing I can say is that they have acknowledged that DOC has demonstrated a commitment to improving the conditions at Edna Mahan and that is verbatim in the language.”
Correctional officers charged with assault
The DOJ report, the result of an investigation that began in April 2018, found systemic problems at Mahan that allow sexual abuse to occur undetected and undeterred and that discourage prisoners from reporting abuse. At least eight correctional police officers at the Hunterdon County facility have been charged with sexual assault or misconduct since 2015.
“Long-standing problems with staff sexual abuse at Edna Mahan have been documented for decades,” the report stated. “Despite being on notice of this sexual abuse, NJDOC and Edna Mahan failed to take timely action to remedy the systemic problems that enabled correction officers and other staff to continue to sexually abuse Edna Mahan prisoners.”
A settlement would prevent DOJ from suing the state to force it to correct issues at Mahan. Hicks said he expects the settlement, currently under review, will be finalized soon.
Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), who chairs the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, raised the issue during a hearing about Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget proposal, which would cut the Department of Corrections budget by more than $50 million. She peppered Hicks with questions about Mahan, noting that she was disappointed Hicks did not appear at a hearing earlier this year following the release of the DOJ report, which she said Hicks has “admitted is pretty scathing.”
Specifically, Greenstein asked on what basis federal officials stated they are confident the DOC will stop the sexual assaults.
“Are they basing it on things you’ve done so far, or on things they expect you to do in the future?” Greenstein asked. “That makes a difference; I mean, have they seen evidence of accountability, have they seen evidence that you have moved ahead and, if so, what are some of the specifics there?”
Improving safety at women’s prison
Hicks said federal officials said they have seen that DOC has made a “significant effort” toward improving safety at the prison that holds about 555 women. Greenstein pressed for more details, saying she wanted to know “what the Department of Justice looked at that makes them say that you’ve made significant progress so far, if that’s the case.”
The commissioner said he could not discuss the contents of the tentative settlement agreement but pointed to reforms the department has put in place. These include access to confidential hotlines and other avenues for inmates to report a sexual assault or other ways in which they believe their rights may have been violated. He said these were not yet fully in place when DOJ officials visited the facility in July 2018.
Greenstein did not seem convinced, saying “the problems have gone on for years and years” and noting that one attorney has alleged at least 16 inmates have been sexually abused at Mahan over the last five years. “I’m sure that number is probably larger,” she added.
Hicks said there was a “toxic culture” at the facility that meant staff looked at the inmates as “less than human” but that has changed.
“Letting officers know in very clear terms that they will be prosecuted, that you will lose your job at minimum,” he said. “We investigate every single allegation that comes our way … we are making referrals if it rises to the level of criminal action, those are being referred to the prosecutor’s office. We are terminating people. We are training people. And we are holding people accountable.”
Changing the culture
Hicks said these actions have set a new tone and are changing the culture.
“Now with the Department of Justice coming in and us getting one step closer to making meaningful reform and change at Edna Mahan, I think that you are going to start to see a changing of the guard and that you’re going to start to see a change in their perception,” he said.
Greenstein said she is eager to see what the DOJ settlement will require and that lawmakers will be keeping an eye on the situation.
“The Legislature is going to keep on this one,” she said. “Hopefully by our staying on this — and I hope you’ll be able to testify in the future — and periodically meeting with you about it and trying to understand how things have changed, maybe they will change.”