NJ should close its only prison for women, Murphy says

Latest investigation into troubles at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility details January assaults of inmates. Criminal probe has already led to charges against officers

New Jersey’s troubled women’s prison will close, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday, but when that will happen and where those inmates will go must still be determined.

Murphy’s decision came as he made public the report on a long-awaited independent investigation of the Jan. 11 assaults by corrections officers at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women that seriously injured several inmates. The 75-page report, led by former state comptroller Matthew Boxer, recommends “closing down EMCF and relocating its inmates to another facility.”

Highly critical of the actions officers took, the report also placed at least some blame for the incident on a lack of written policies and contradictions in those policies that are written regarding the extractions of inmates from cells. It also cites delayed prison reforms revolving around cameras within the facility. It also indicates Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks was not aware that no one was serving as acting administrator of the state’s only women’s prison for 11 weeks up to and including the time of the assault; he thought someone who was an associate administrator was acting as head of the facility.

“NJDOC appears to have been caught flat-footed in response to the departure of the lead official,” the report states. “Our investigation revealed that between (former administrator Sarah) Davis’ last day at EMCF on October 29 and (current administrator Patricia) McGill’s appointment after the January 11 cell extractions, there was no Acting Administrator at EMCF.”

New details about assaults

The report includes new details of the assaults, indicating that there were more than two women injured and one alleged she was sexually assaulted, as well the suspension of more Mahan supervisors and staff, a total of 34. It indicated that Boxer’s office reviewed more than 21,000 documents, emails and correspondence and 20 hours of video. The report also noted the history of sexual assaults of women by corrections officers and the still pending tentative settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over the pattern of civil rights violations there, but states its focus was on the physical assaults of Jan. 11 and 12.

Credit: Report of Investigation January 11, 2021 Cell Extractions at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women
Injury suffered by one woman following the Jan. 11 cell extractions at Edna Mahan. Source is the Boxer report.

“Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women has a long history of abusive incidents predating our Administration, and we must now commit ourselves to completely breaking this pattern of misconduct to better serve incarcerated women entrusted to the state’s care,” Murphy said in a statement. “After reading the report and its recommendations, I have decided that the only path forward is to responsibly close the facility.”

Response to Murphy’s announcement was mixed. Several former inmates and advocates said that closing the building will not stop the problems; that will take a complete culture change and retraining of officers. Lawmakers generally supported closing the facility, though some are wary of the unknown cost of replacing it. And some say the closure is not enough and that DOC needs new leadership.

“The governor’s decision to close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women is long overdue,” said Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Burlington). “It is now time for the Governor to make another decision that is long overdue, and that it is to fire Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, who showed himself unwilling or unable to address the cultural and institutional issues at Edna Mahan … This failure to ensure that proper leadership was in place at a women’s prison that has been plagued by a culture of rape and abuse falls directly on Commissioner Hicks. How could this happen nine months after the U.S. Justice Department found that corrections officers routinely violated the civil and constitutional rights of women inmates?”

Murphy had expressed his outrage at the incidents after they came to light in late January but said he would reserve judgment on what to do, including calls for the replacement of state Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, until after the completion of Boxer’s review. The report, dated June 3 and released by Murphy’s office Monday, took about four months, with some of the delay explained by “specific non-interference requests by law enforcement.” So far, 10 former corrections officers have been charged with assault or official misconduct or both as a result.

Murphy was asked twice about Hicks’ future during Monday’s coronavirus briefing and was non-committal, saying, “No news to make on leadership, but I’m very disturbed by the report.”

Five areas of recommendations

The report makes recommendations in five areas. One of those calls for strengthening the now leaderless ombudsperson’s office,  which had been directed by law to handle oversight and review inmate complaints. The report said the Corrections Department’s special investigations unit should include at least some noncorrections officials. The authorization protocols for cell extractions should be put in writing and additional training on these extractions should be conducted. Body cameras and an early-warning system for correctional officers’ conduct should be implemented faster, the report also recommends.

The major recommendation regarding the state’s 108-year old prison for women states that at a minimum, the DOC should “diversify where female inmates may be incarcerated” so if problems arise between specific inmates and staff, there would be another place where they could be transferred. If Mahan continues to be used, it will need “significant repairs,” given its age and state of disrepair. The report cites a power outage that left 200 inmates without electricity for hours over Mother’s Day weekend, as well as problems with black mold.

“At EMCF, the disrepair of the physical facility can signal to inmates, as inmates indicated during our interviews, that because the State does not ‘care’ enough to fix the facility, it does not care about the inmates or their behavior, good or bad,” the report states. “This also applies to staff members.”

Moving to closure immediately

Murphy said he plans to start the process of closing Mahan immediately.

“I look forward to working with our partners in the Legislature to responsibly close down the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women and relocate inmates to a new facility or other facilities,” he said. “While this will not happen overnight, I intend to work with legislative leadership during the current budget cycle to allocate funding to begin this multi-year process.”

Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic) said closing the facility will not help the women without better leadership in place at the corrections department and said Murphy should take some blame, as well.

“The abuses and sexual assaults that occurred at Edna Mahan were the result of poor leadership by Governor Murphy and NJDOC Commissioner Hicks and their failure to heed federal warnings or hold abusive staff accountable,” she said. “It’s unclear how closing the facility at taxpayer expense will remedy the leadership concerns that will persist regardless of where the inmates are located.”

Murphy didn’t give a timetable for closing Mahan, saying it will be “a multi-year process,” and pledged that other reforms will be implemented in the meantime.

Other reforms, particularly changing the culture at Mahan, are what are really needed, said Lauren Bianco, who was incarcerated there for five years through 2019. The money that will potentially be spent on a new facility “needs to go into training these officers how to, you know, how to be human,” she said.

“They’ve got to vet these officers, COs, psychologically, all around,” Bianco added. “There’s no reason for grown men to be able to ever put their hands on a woman in any facility … I personally have not physically endured anything at Edna Mahan, thank God, but I have seen plenty.”

Experts told the lawyers who worked on the report that given the timing of the extractions, the fact that all 22 inmates in the unit were removed from their cells and the officers’ anger and frustration over the inmates’ repeated tossing of bodily fluids out of their cells and onto the officers that “what the officers were trying to do (was) send a message that they’re in charge.”

Jeanne LoCicero, legal director of ACLU-NJ, said “survivors must play a central role” in reforming Mahan and all prisons and the Office of Corrections ombudsperson needs to fully embrace the new power it got last year to investigate prisons and advocates for inmates.

“Edna Mahan’s systemic abuses have long called for action, and the Governor’s announcement together with today’s report create an important moment for addressing the profound harm of our corrections system — but we can and must go much further than relocating people from one facility to another,” she said. “Changing a name or location does little to check the systemic and cultural issues plaguing our state’s prison system, and it will not prevent further injustices. The recommendations to use the full power of the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson are particularly important.”

Boosting ombudsperson’s budget

Murphy said he plans to replace the corrections ombudsperson, who left two months ago although he is still on the state payroll, “as soon as we can responsibly do it.” Budget documents obtained by NJ Spotlight News indicate the administration is looking to increase the ombudsperson’s budget by another $220,000, which would pay for two additional staffers.

The report raises some questions about whether the assaults would have occurred had certain policies been codified and reforms been in place.

For instance, the DOC central office told all facility administrators last year that central office approval was required for overnight cell extractions but that was never put in writing. The written cell extraction protocols are inconsistent in stating whether the facility administrator or those with a rank of sergeant or higher can authorize an extraction. Yet “seemingly in contrast to the policy,” Hicks told a joint Assembly committee hearing two months ago that central office must be notified prior to a cell extraction, the report states.

Many of the videos of the extractions show only the backs of officers instead of the inmate and what is happening to the person. Had Mahan outfitted all of its officers with body-worn cameras (BWCs), there would have been better footage. DOC began putting body cameras in use at Mahan last month, with 120 now operating during searches, cell extractions, use of force incidents and similar actions. But the department got funding for the program, about half the total cost, from a federal grant in 2018, so no officers at Mahan had body cameras on Jan. 11.

The report states that the failure to properly record the extractions “likely would not have occurred if officers were wearing BWCs when the extractions were conducted. Indeed, we question whether, in that scenario, the Cell Extractions would have occurred at all.”

Additionally, the report found that some of the officers involved in the extractions had previously engaged in misconduct at Mahan or when off duty. One suspended lieutenant had been reprimanded in 2013 and suspended in 2016 for not properly recording cell extractions or escorts. Another was involved in a domestic violence incident with his child’s mother who was also a Mahan officer at the time and he was deemed unfit to possess a weapon for a time.

In addition to other recommendations, the report suggests the state exempt Mahan from the law that requires most state employees to live in the state, saying that if the facility could draw staff from Pennsylvania — less than 20 miles from the Hunterdon County prison — it “would increase the pool of potential candidates.” On the other hand, relocating the women’s prison to a more central location in the state, and increasing the $44,479 starting salary for a corrections officer, could also help recruitment.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) said she supports replacing Mahan because its toxic culture of physical and sexual abuse “is embedded so deeply within the prison that we have no choice other than to close the facility forever.” Rather than build one new prison, Ruiz said the women should be moved to several smaller facilities.

“As we plan for the future, we should ensure that our women who have suffered abuse and neglect for so long can be transferred to facilities closer to their homes where they can receive support from their families and prepare for reentry into society after they have completed their sentences.

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