Package of reform legislation spurred by abuse at women’s prison advances

Assembly committees OK bills that would expand use of body cameras, require guard training and criminalize retaliation against prisoners
Assembly Judiciary Committee meeting Tuesday.

The New Jersey Assembly is moving quickly to address the continuing problem of sexual assaults at the state’s only women’s prison, as well as to better the treatment of inmates throughout the corrections system.

On Tuesday, six bills cleared Assembly committees in rapid succession, poising them for final passage by the full house Thursday. Four arose from the U.S. Department of Justice’s scathing April 2020 report on sexual assaults at the Edna Mahan Women’s Correctional Facility, a daylong hearing two Assembly committees held in light of physical assaults in January that left at least two inmates seriously injured and a subsequent tour by lawmakers of the Hunterdon County prison last month.

Key provisions of the bill package include a requirement that all corrections officers wear body cameras, mandatory training on sexual harassment and assault and making it a crime for a guard to retaliate against an inmate who reports an assault. The measures also look to increase the use of halfway houses in the state.

“There’s such an urgency to the crisis at hand …” said Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) of persistent problems at the women’s prison. “Because of that urgency, we realize we need to act swiftly and, although today’s work again marks the beginning of our responsive measures, we hope that it will be a step forward in addressing what the women at Edna Mahan have suffered.”

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Mukherji said the Assembly Women and Children’s Committee will consider additional measures next month.

Edna Mahan in Hunterdon County has been the site of physical and sexual abuse for decades. The latest publicly known incident in January led to 10 corrections officers facing criminal charges including official misconduct and, in some cases, assault, and another 20 suspended with pay. That incident again thrust the facility into the spotlight, and led to the state Senate unanimously calling for the ouster of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks.

A look at the bills

The reforms passed Tuesday would apply to the entire corrections system.

Perhaps the most significant bill is A-5039, which would require all state corrections officers to wear body cameras and require prisons to develop and implement plans to install state-of-the-art security camera systems. The cost of equipping more than 5,000 corrections officers with body cameras is estimated at between $8 million and $10 million in the first year and as much as $5.2 million annually over the next four years. Because the measure was amended by the committee to add the stationary camera requirement, no fiscal estimate of that cost was available.

Currently, Mahan is one of two prisons testing a small number of body cameras using a federal grant. Hicks said last week that all 200 body cameras would not be in use until the fall at least, in part due to “bandwidth” issues because the cameras are connected to a cloud-based system.

The bill sets rules for when a body camera can be deactivated, such as when the officer is using the restroom. And it specifies when video can be turned off but the sound remains on, including during a strip or body-cavity search and when an officer is patrolling a restroom or showers.

Such rules are crucial to protecting inmates’ rights, advocates say. Recordings must be retained for at least six months and any corrections officer who fails to follow the recording or retention rules is subject to disciplinary action.

It also mandates that when the placement of new security cameras is deemed appropriate — including to cover current blind spots — these be installed within 30 days.

READ: Time might be running out for NJ’s only prison for women

WATCH: Officers at women’s prison to wear body cameras

Lawmakers repeatedly have expressed frustration that a $6 million stationary camera upgrade at Mahan has yet to be completed. Hicks said that all cameras likely won’t be installed until September.

“In response to some of the testimony we heard, and it’s still not clear to me why it’s taken the amount of time that it has to replace the video surveillance system at Edna Mahan and deal with the blind spots that we’ve known about … now we will compel it through legislation,” said Mukherji.

More significant change

A-5750 also embodies a significant change, requiring the corrections commissioner to establish a secure and confidential method for inmates to report complaints of mental, physical or sexual abuse or violence. It would also be a crime for a corrections officer or civilian staff member to retaliate against an inmate who files a complaint or to fail to report known or suspected sexual or physical violence of an inmate by an officer. That crime would be punishable by up to 18 months in prison or a fine of up to $10,000 or both. Inmates would not be charged any fees to file a complaint.

“When it comes to retaliating against inmates who report physical abuse, sexual abuse, we have to send a message that it will be taken seriously,” said Mukherji, who is sponsoring that bill. “There must be strict measures preventing retaliation against inmates who are victims or who have witnessed sexual abuse from coming forward … What we’ve seen going on at Edna Mahan, it’s not enough, clearly, for someone charged with keeping the place secure and keeping inmates safe, not to be a rapist. If you know that has happened, you must report it, and it must be criminal for you not to report that kind of wrong-doing.”

Two other measures would mandate increased training for corrections officers.

A-5751 would double the amount of mandatory in-service training to 40 hours with the added time dedicated to such topics as treating inmates with dignity, fairness, and respect. Enhanced training would also encompass de-escalation, minimizing the use of force and appropriate methods of dealing with inmates of diverse cultures and religions and those in the LGBTQ community. It would require that all prospective corrections officers pass a criminal history record background check.

“Dignity and respect are human rights regardless of where a person resides,” said Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D-Bergen). “The legislation will help ensure these officers have the training and tools they need to address any situation that arises with compassion and safety at the forefront of their decisions … The unspeakable acts of abuse which have occurred at Edna Mahan must never happen again.”

A-5749 would require special training for corrections officers who conduct sexual abuse investigations, prohibit those who oversee compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act from serving as investigators and require investigators to recuse themselves if they have a personal relationship with an officer being investigated.

The final two bills are not specific to the problems at Mahan, but aim to help all state inmates have a smoother transition back into the community. A-4681 would make more inmates eligible to participate in a residential community release programs, or halfway houses, prior to release. A-4785 would expand the documents, information and services inmates get while awaiting release and immediately after.