Inmates at N.J. Women’s Prison Endured Years of Sex Abuse, Justice Dept. Finds

By 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

April 13, 2020

The Justice Department released a report detailing widespread, pervasive sexual abuse at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey.Credit...

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WASHINGTON — Inmates at New Jersey’s only state prison for women were regularly sexually assaulted by guards and sometimes forced to engage in sex acts with other prisoners while staff members looked on, according to a Justice Department report released on Monday detailing widespread, pervasive sexual abuse at the facility.

In one instance at the prison, the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J., one woman was forced to act as a lookout for the guard assaulting her, the report said.

Assault and coercion were so prevalent that the Justice Department concluded that the New Jersey Department of Corrections and the prison had violated the inmates’ constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment.

“Sexual abuse should not be a part of any prisoner’s punishment,” Eric S. Dreiband, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement accompanying the report, the result of an investigation by the division and the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey. “Women prisoners at Edna Mahan are at substantial risk of sexual abuse by staff because systemic deficiencies discourage prisoners from reporting sexual abuse and allow sexual abuse to occur undetected and undeterred.”

The Justice Department said it could sue the department in 49 days if officials did not address the problems laid out in the report.

A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, Matthew Schuman, said the agency had already formed a task force to implement some of the recommendations the Justice Department announced Monday, including gender restrictions for some posts, more cameras and an early warning system to identify problematic behavior. It has re-established a board of women to advocate on behalf of inmates at Edna Mahan, and officers now undergo more training on gender issues.

The corrections department “remains committed to ensuring the safety of all those in its care,” Mr. Schuman said.

The damning report was the latest instance of a Justice Department effort to crack down on abuses at state prisons across the nation. The department has pledged to investigate Mississippi’s notoriously violent state prisons and found last year that Alabama’s prisons were so dysfunctional, unsafe and gruesome that they also violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Sexual assaults are particularly pervasive at Edna Mahan, a 700-person facility where inmates have complained for decades that sexual assault is an “open secret,” the department found.

“As the Supreme Court has held, sexual abuse is not part of any person’s punishment,” the department said in its report. “Our society requires prisoners to give up their liberty, but that surrender does not encompass the basic right to be free from severe unwanted sexual contact.”

At least 16 women said they were beaten or sexually abused between 2008 and 2010 by a single officer, according to the report. He never faced criminal charges, but he did settle a lawsuit with six former prisoners for $75,000. In 2010 and 2011, three corrections officers were fired after several women accused them of abuse.

The Justice Department’s investigation began in April 2018, after New Jersey Advance Media published a detailed article about the culture of rampant sexual violence against inmates at the prison. Even after officers were informed that the Justice Department was investigating the prison, sexual assault and coercion continued largely unabated, federal investigators found.

Between October 2016 and April 2019 — a full year after the prison had been under investigation — seven correction officers and one civilian employee were arrested, indicted, convicted or pleaded guilty to sexual abuse charges, including senior officers. The Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office is still pursuing sexual assault cases related to Edna Mahan.

Investigators reviewing the files of state corrections officials found scores of substantiated instances dating back years when guards preyed on inmates “for sexual gratification.” Inmates were forced to perform sex acts on guards or with other prisoners.

In one case, the guards held “viewing parties” of a mentally ill inmate who was on suicide watch. They coerced her to dance naked for them.

Staff members and guards regularly referred to inmates in vulgar, homophobic and demeaning terms, the department found. They also regularly commented on the physical appearance and perceived sexual inclinations of the inmates.

“This environment emboldens Edna Mahan staff to seek out opportunities for sexual abuse,” the report said.

Women kept quiet, living in fear of retaliation, violence or loss of privileges, the department found. And when they did speak up, the prison was often indifferent to complaints.

When the prison instituted a hotline in 2018 for inmates to report sexual assault allegations, the number was not posted in inmate housing units or common areas, the department found. The staff called the hotline the “snitch line” and used the term to display the number on the prison’s caller ID system.

“It is both problematic and emblematic of the problems with the reporting systems at Edna Mahan,” the report said.

The Justice Department demanded that the prison implement 19 remedial measures to address systemic sexual assault and harassment, including compliance with national standards on reporting allegations and installing more cameras.

The department said the prison should also stop transferring prisoners who report sexual abuses to segregated housing, provide a way for inmates to anonymously and confidentially report sexual abuse and harassment, and inform prisoners of their rights to do so.

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