Advocates tell of ‘torture’ and discrimination in NJ prisons

Set up last year to address harassment and misogyny in politics and government, workgroup now looks to ‘give voice to the women behind the walls’

Advocates for New Jersey prison inmates told the ad hoc group examining sexual harassment and misogyny Thursday about “torture,” discrimination and poor living conditions faced by people incarcerated in the state, adding their voices to calls for a new public advocate to conduct independent investigations of treatment in prisons.

“I can attest that torture in New Jersey prisons and jails has escalated, sexual and racial discrimination reign, that cruelty happens with impunity and that it appears that no one is accountable,” Bonnie Kerness, coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s prison watch program, told the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics during a virtual meeting.

The workgroup, led by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), was formed last year to examine and recommend reforms to address harassment and misogyny in politics and government. But it broadened the scope of its mission after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report last May about multiple civil rights violations  at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. It held a special hearing last summer to hear from former inmates, who told of sexual abuse and retaliation against those who complained, and Weinberg said that workgroup members “were so moved” that they are “anxious to give voice to the women behind the walls.”

Last month at Edna Mahan

Kerness told of getting letters and phone calls from prisoners and their family members about last month’s alleged assaults at Mahan that left at least two women badly injured and have led to the indictments of four prison officers to date. One inmate wrote her to describe police in riot gear handcuffing and pepper-spraying inmates, then dragging women out of their cells along the floors, as well as “the sickening sound of the beatings and screams” from those being punched by officers.

“The most recent brutality at Edna Mahan happened despite the indictments of guards for unbridled sexual abuse,” Kerness said. “This happened despite legislation passed to ensure the protection of women in the care of New Jersey’s prison system. And this happened despite the scathing 2020 report of the Department of Justice on that prison which specifically notes that the DOC’s investigatory body, called the Special Investigative Division or SID, is corrupt.”

Jean Ross, another advocate, spoke about conditions systemwide, describing what she said were “holes that are used as toilets in parts of New Jersey State Prison, rats, urine-soaked mattresses.”

Call for independent public advocate

Both women said a complete culture change is necessary to improve conditions in prisons and that will be difficult. In the meantime, they endorsed Weinberg’s call for an independent public advocate to receive complaints and look into allegations of abuse and other problems not only in prisons, but also in such other state facilities as veterans homes, psychiatric hospitals and developmental centers.

Weinberg said she is putting the finishing touches to the legislation, which would also establish a community board for each facility to meet periodically about issues that arise; she said she hopes to introduce the legislation at the next Senate session.

“We really think that a public advocate will answer many of those issues,” she said. “I think that’s the step forward.”

WATCH: Lawmakers push for new Department of Corrections commissioner

MORE: Outraged by abuse at women’s prison, Democratic senators call for creation of public advocate

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