New Jersey corrections officials are considering the replacement of the state’s only prison for female inmates, a lockup plagued by harassment and sexual assault for decades and now suffering with power outages for the last four days.
One senator during a budget hearing Tuesday urged corrections officials to do something “sooner than soon,” as she called the conditions for the women imprisoned there “a mess.”
That hearing — by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on the Department of Corrections’ proposed spending plan for the coming year — focused on issues at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, both the attacks on prisoners and the condition of the buildings on the prison campus.
Several senators expressed frustration over the issues, including the sexual harassment and assaults that have continued for three decades. They also again questioned the stewardship of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, with one lawmaker noting the Senate’s bipartisan, unanimous call earlier this year for him to step down.
“You took the job to address these issues and, with all due respect, Commissioner, I think you’ve failed,” said Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Burlington). “These women deserve better and I am going to once again ask for your resignation.”
Pressure on commissioner
Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) also referenced the call for Hicks’ resignation after the commissioner said all 200 body cameras for corrections officers 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.
“It’s just beyond my ability to understand and accept that, after what we’ve been through … that this fundamental way to dramatically reduce the likelihood that anything like this could happen again hasn’t been addressed,” O’Scanlon said.
During an attempt on Jan. 11 by officers to remove inmates from their cells, two women were seriously injured. So far 10 officers and supervisors have been charged and another 20 staff members, including a former administrator, remain suspended.
Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer) asked how, given the changes in leadership and programming over the years, that assault still took place.
“It does seem to be extreme there,” said Greenstein. “It’s made me think that — and I think we talked about this — that maybe what’s needed is to almost tear it down and start it up again.”
A consultant now advising the department is looking at how “suitable” the facility is and will be on-site there next week, Hicks said. That consultant was hired to advise the department on the change that’s needed to comply with a consent decree over sexual assaults at Mahan that the U.S. Department of Justice is expected to approve soon.
Dating back 100 years
The Hunterdon County campus first opened in 1913 and has about three dozen buildings, some more than a century old. While it held as many as 1,000 women in minimum-, medium- and maximum-security sections earlier this century, the current census is 376, with a capacity for 779, according to the most recent state budget data.
Advocates say that mold is a problem in at least one building and describe such other issues as “black sludge found in sinks, drains, toilets and showers, leaking sewage, brown and black water.”
“We do believe that there are challenges with the physical plant at Edna Mahan,” Hicks said. “I’m not in a position right now to say that, yes, we absolutely need to close the facility, but it will be studied. And that is something that, when we have a recommendation, we definitely will review.”
Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) pressed Hicks about a power outage that began at 1:45 p.m. Saturday.
Likely caused by a lightning strike, Hicks said a problem with “underground feeders” prevented the facility’s own generators from functioning and the DOC brought in “large-scale” replacements.
According to DOC spokeswoman Liz Velez, power was restored to most of the campus by 5 p.m. Saturday, though it remained out in one building known as the Stowe Cottage. Advocates said it was out there for about 40 hours, including Mother’s Day, when women had neither heat, hot water nor hot food.
Hicks disputed reports that inmates were served “lettuce sandwiches.” Velez said women were allowed hot showers in other units and that such other services as health care and family visits continued without interruption.
Closure would take time
The latest failure at the facility, coupled with the problems keeping women’s safe there and its remote location far from where most of the inmates’ families live, require that Mahan be abandoned, Ruiz said.
“it is not the best setting for mothers to be connected with families and children,” she said. “I don’t understand what is it that we’re waiting for when someone just says this is not functioning, and the right thing to do is just to close down shop and find the best places for these women to be protected, to thrive, to grow into rehabilitate. And I don’t want to wait for the feds to come back and tell us this.
“We should just call it,” Ruiz continued. “Enough is enough. And this is not at the expense of a budget line item; this is added at an expense of a daughter, a mother, a sister.”
Hicks said he is serious about considering a closure, but it could not happen immediately.
“You have to find a suitable space for relocation,” he said. “So when I say that we have a consultant that is coming in next week, part of that is to not just make a recommendation, if we’re going to relocate, but what type of facility would we relocate these individuals to.”
Ruiz stressed that a new facility should not be “remote,” but that the department “bring these women back close to their families so that they can be close to their children and so that you know that we can implement strategic programs that we know work.”
This is not the first time the idea of closing Mahan has come up. During a daylong hearing with Assembly committees last month, at least one corrections expert supported closing the facility. But some advocates say creating a new women’s prison won’t in itself protect the prisoners; a change in the culture of the facility and the workers there will be necessary.
Greenstein asked that the department “study it as quickly as you can” because the problems are so long-standing and widespread.
“I’ve been looking for many years and it seems to me that the I’m not sure how you fix it,” she said. “I feel like the women are crying out. Yes, they are prisoners, but they’re crying out for help. They have nowhere to turn … Something’s got to be done sooner than soon. It can’t wait at all.”