NJ will close Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, Gov. Phil Murphy says
Former inmates of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, located in Union Township, Hunterdon Conty, testify about alleged instances of sexual abuse and harassment before a committee in the New Jersey Senate in February.
The state will close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.
The announcement comes after the state released an investigative report on the cell extractions at the facility on Jan. 11 that have led to criminal charges against several guards who allegedly used excessive force. Ten officers so far have been charged.
The Jan. 11 charges were the latest in a series of criminal charges, including sexual assault, brought in recent years against guards at the facility plagued by corruption and abuse.
“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 sate’s care," Murphy said in a statement Monday morning.
In a press conference Monday afternoon, Murphy said the report about the "horrific" events was "very disturbing."
The report said investigators reviewed videos which were "exceedingly violent and alarming to put into words." One Department of Corrections official told investigators, "one of the most disturbing series of videos I have ever seen."
Murphy did not provide a timeline for the closure or how the inmates would be relocated.
"It will take time," the governor said at the press conference, adding he will work with the Legislature on the closure.
"You can't turn the cruise liner around in five minutes," he continued, saying reforms will be implemented "as fast as we can."
Murphy refused to comment on the future of the leadership of the Department of Corrections, including Commissioner Marcus Hicks.
“After reading the report and its recommendations, I have decided that the only path forward is to responsibly close the facility," the governor continued in his morning statement. "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. 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.”
The report, prepared by former State Comptroller Matt Boxer and the law firm Lowenstein Sandler, recommends that "significant changes are necessary" at the facility.
In preparing the report, the investigators examined more than 21,000 documents, interviewed 24 state officials and reviewed more than 20 hours of video footage.
The report did not directly call for the closure of Edna Mahan but recommends that the state "consider" closing the facility and relocating the inmates.
But Bonnie Kerness, program director of American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch, said a new facility will not solve the chronic problems with the state's corrections system.
Relocating the inmates may not change the administrative culture, she said, that has led to what the report calls the "current cycle of misconduct." What is needed, she said, is greater oversight.
"The level of anxiety there is enormous," Kerness said.
Kerness said "there are a lot of holes" in the proposal and the decision to close the facility should have been made after holding hearings and soliciting input from the inmates and other stakeholders.
The report says "a strong and independent" Special Investigations Division, or SID, is "vital to the health" of Edna Mahan.
All the current SID officers are former correctional officers. That may affect their impartiality, or the appearance of impartiality, the report says.
"Consideration should be given to having at least some SID investigators who do not come from the ranks of correctional officers," the report says.
Because the current SID chief is retiring, there is an "an opportunity for a fresh start."
The report also said the role of the ombudsperson at the facility should be strengthened.
The ombudsperson had become, the report said, "an office that receives complaints and then simply refers them to another party to resolve them.”
At a minimum, the report said, the state should have more than one correctional facility for women.
Under this alternative, Edna Mahan would continue to operate but with a reduced population and inmates could be transferred to another facility when necessary, including separating an inmate from a staff member accused of abuse.
The report also concludes that the century-old facility bordering Route 78 in Union Township is in a state of disrepair
What made that Jan. 11 events "particularly" striking, the report says, is that they came in the middle of an ongoing federal Department of Justice probe into sexual abuse of inmates at Edna Mahan. A 2020 U.S. Department of Justice report found rampant sexual abuse of inmates and retaliation.
The state Department of Corrections also agreed earlier this year to a nearly $21 million settlement to resolve more than 22 civil lawsuits filed by current and former inmates alleging abuse at the prison.
The report, while concentrating the Jan. 11 events, makes several other recommendations, including increasing the number of female guards to 60% or 70% of the total from the current level of 46%.
The report also found that the Department of Corrections had difficulty recruiting "high-quality officers" because of its "remote location" and the $44,479.39 starting salary. Many county jails offer guards more money than the state, according to the report.
"In short, top law enforcement candidates often can find work that is both safer and higher-paying," the report states.
The report also found "stark differences" in how staffers and inmates perceive conditions at the facility.
"Inmates reported that no one is looking out for them and their rights are being abused," the report says. "On the other hand, officers have reported that the inmates are effectively in control of the facility and that inmates do not respect their authority."
The Jan. 11 incidents
The report goes into detail about the "brutality" during the Jan. 11 events, which happened when there was no acting administrator at the facility between the retirement of Sarah Davis and the appointment of Patricia McGill on Jan. 16.
The events came at a "challenging time" at the facility because it was difficult to separate inmates who do not get along with each other due to COVID restrictions
There was also an increase in "splashing" incidents where inmates squirt guards with liquid, often urine or feces, the report says. Guards were upset that inmates were not being criminally charged in the splashing incidents.
The guards felt "frustrated and exhausted" and "unsupported," the report says, leading to one union official saying that "things reached a boiling point."
The decision to conduct the cell extractions came after multiple "splashing" incidents. In total 22 inmates were taken out of their cells, seventeen without incident. Four inmates required a forced extraction and one inmate initially complied, but later became non-compliant.
The report says no contraband was discovered during the cell extractions and related searches. Thirty-seven officers put in overtime due to the extractions.
In a video of one of the cell extractions, the extraction team of five guards rushes into a cell of a non-compliant inmate and pushes her against the wall. One officer pulls her back by her braids while another punches her numerous times in the face, chest and back.
In all, according to charges filed against the officer, he punched her 28 times,
According the report, the officers' use-of-force reports say the inmate had no injuries, but the next day she was taken to a hospital where she was diagnosed with a concussion and cervical sprain.
The investigation also revealed that two officers in the cell extractions had "engaged in violent behavior while off-duty during their employment," though senior Department of Corrections officials were unaware of the incidents.
One officer, the report said, was involved in two separate incidents in which he discharged his off-duty weapon while driving including a 2003 incident where he allegedly shot at another driver.
The other officer was charged with criminal mischief in 2017 after he allegedly punched a door during a domestic violence incident with the mother of his child, who was also a guard.
Legislators were divided over Murphy's announcement.
“This is the best and only decision to be made," said Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Mercer, chair of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee. "The doors of Edna Mahan should be closed, and the women must be transferred away from a facility where too many suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse for far too long."
But Greenstein said more needs to be done.
“While the facility is being shut down, the sad and sordid history of abuse at Mahan is not over," she continued. "We still need to see the consent decree with the Department of Justice, and we must work to make needed reforms to the treatment of women held in the corrections system. The tragic lessons of Edna Mahan should not be lost or left behind as we ensure that nothing like this happens again and that the state’s correctional system treats women humanely.”
Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, questioned how the closure of the facility will solve the continuing abuse.
"The abuses and sexual assaults that occurred at Edna Mahan were the result of poor leadership by Governor Murphy and New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Hicks and their failure to heed federal warnings or hold abusive staff accountable," she said in a statement. "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. The building didn’t fail these women, the Murphy administration did.”
The governor said he welcomed the report's recommendations, "including establishing independent oversight; further clarifying authorization protocols for cell extractions; strengthening staff recruitment, retention, and training; accelerating the implementation and adoption of body-worn cameras and an early warning system; and improving physical infrastructure while pursuing the ultimate goal of closure of the facility. I am directing the Department of Corrections to review the recommendations with the goal of implementing them as soon as practicable.”
Mike Deak is a reporter for mycentraljersey.com. To get unlimited access to his articles on Somerset and Hunterdon counties, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.