Culture of abuse and neglect unsettles joint hearing on Edna Mahan Women’s Prison

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER | APRIL 9, 2021 

NJ Spotlight News

 

New Jersey Assembly members investigating the continuing verbal, physical and sexual assaults of inmates at the state’s only women’s prison heard a dizzying litany of pressing problems plaguing the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility and other prisons during a nearly eight-hour hearing Thursday.

To name just a few issues: The state Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson are not fully implementing recent laws meant to improve the rights and dignity of inmates. The ombudsperson is not using its full authority to investigate facilities and recommend changes. Women are afraid to report abuse because of retaliation or won’t report because their concerns are never addressed. Blind spots remain at Mahan where assaults can occur without being recorded.

The problems at Mahan are so entrenched that a Rutgers University expert on corrections said the state should consider abandoning the women’s prison, located in Hunterdon County, and replacing it with one or more smaller facilities or other options. That would mean a fresh start with a different mindset for the treatment of the inmates.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Assemblywoman Gabriella Mosquera (D-Gloucester), who chairs the Assembly Women and Children Committee that held a joint hearing via Zoom with the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said at the conclusion of the daylong hearing. “We have a real opportunity to do some real change and try to see how we can change the culture of not only Edna Mahan but also the prison culture throughout the state, because we’re talking about the lives of individuals, the dignity of individuals.”

January assault prompts joint hearing

The joint Assembly committee hearing was prompted by a January incident that left at least two women seriously injured, but lawmakers also asked about the report issued one year ago by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that found multiple violations of inmates’ civil rights, including sexual assaults. Also under review, the implementation of two laws that took effect last August: one guaranteeing dignity to prisoners and giving greater investigatory power to the corrections’ ombudsman and the other essentially ending the use of solitary confinement.

“There is no doubt, just as last year’s report states, that there has been a pattern of abusive behavior at Edna Mahan that violates the Eighth Amendment rights of the inmates,” Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said in closing the hearing. “There’s little doubt in my mind that, despite what we heard today about some progress in implementing remedial measures and the dignity act legislation, these Eighth Amendment violations continue and inmates remain in harm’s way … It’s unclear to those of us up here whether things have gotten better or worse. There are serial rapists who continue to have inmates entrusted to their care and custody, who continue to be employed at Edna Mahan today. And there are others who share culpability because they stand idly, keeping watch for supervisors, reluctant to audit the security footage, even though they are required to do so.”

That became abundantly clear in late January after the inmate extractions that left one woman with a fractured eye socket and another with a concussion after being punched 28 times. So far eight corrections officers have been charged with assault and official misconduct and 30 corrections officers were suspended without pay — although one advocate said the 22 who have not been arrested are back at work — as a criminal investigation by the state attorney general’s office and an external inquiry by the former state comptroller continue. In the wake of these, the state Senate passed a bipartisan resolution without opposition urging Marcus Hicks, the state’s corrections commissioner, to resign or be removed from office. A bipartisan resolution pending in the Assembly urges Hicks’ impeachment.

Hicks was the first to testify during the morning session that was at times contentious. It was the first time he has spoken publicly to lawmakers since the January incident and while he addressed it broadly in his remarks, he sat with an attorney and declined to answer any specific questions from lawmakers about the incident because investigations are ongoing. During his comments, he discussed his experience with DOC since 2007 and addressed the criticisms he has faced.

“The January 11 incident and those incidents before my tenue have culminated in this moment, bringing my character into question,” he said. “Some suggest my varied institutional knowledge is the problem, suggesting my way of thinking aligns with previous administrations. I respectfully disagree … I reaffirm my position that my administration is ushering in a new era in corrections. Change is coming slowly but surely, as these things take time. Shifting culture takes time. My administration is up to the challenge.”

Federal monitors likely at Mahan

Thursday, Hicks announced the state has reached an agreement on a consent decree with the DOJ that is likely to result in the placement of federal monitors at Mahan and that he expects it will get final approval from the department in the next few weeks. Last September, Hicks told the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee that there was a tentative agreement over the matter, which has led senators to question why that had never been finalized in the months since the January assaults.

This was the third announcement from DOC this week related to Mahan. On Wednesday, the department announced it has reached a settlement in cases involving 22 current and former inmates alleging sexual abuse and harassment since 2014 that would provide $20.8 million in damages to the women and attorneys’ fees and put in place a system of body cameras for DOC staff who regularly come into contact with inmates. The settlement still needs court approval. On learning of the proposed settlement, four Democratic senators who have been vocal critics of Hicks asked for details of the settlements and the complaints. On Tuesday, Hicks announced via press release that Mahan and Northern State Prison would be the first to implement body cameras for staff, though that release did not mention the legal cases.

About five weeks after the January assaults, the DOC announced it was entering into an agreement with The Moss Group, a national criminal justice consulting firm, to help craft new policies and practices to implement at Mahan. NJ Spotlight News has requested a copy of the contract, which under the state’s open public records law is a document that should be made readily available to the public. The DOC has said it needs an extension of time to fulfill the request and expects to do so next week.

‘Horrific treatment’ — corrections commissioner Hicks

Hicks attributed the January assaults, which he said inflicted “horrific treatment” on several women, to a few officers who chose to disregard established protocol and procedures and said the department has a “zero-tolerance” for such behavior, noting 30 were suspended.

But Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R-Morris) noted that the number of officers suspended represents roughly 10% of the 314 officers working at the facility that currently has 374 inmates.

“I suggest this is not a bad actors’ scenario,” she said. Dunn went on to say that a “code of silence” that keeps officers from reporting improper behavior by fellow officers “has really fostered what appears to be an organized network of predation and human trafficking.”

Assembly members asked repeatedly about the mechanisms women have for reporting incidents or grievances and got conflicting answers. Hicks and Dan DiBenedetti, the state corrections ombudsperson, said there are several ways for women to make confidential reports and that these are followed up. But advocates said these are not confidential and can result in retaliation from guards and that they often go unanswered, leading women to stop making reports because they see it as an exercise in futility.

Lydia Thornton, who was incarcerated in Mahan from 2010 to 2015, said that when she was inside and filed a grievance by filling out a form and handing it to a guard, she saw officers toss grievances in the trash rather than submit them. She now serves as an advocate and said that when the ombudsman’s office receives a complaint from the family member of someone who is incarcerated about something that happens within Mahan, it does little.

“You get a form letter in the mail that says your concern has been forwarded to the administrator of the facility,” Thornton said. “Now if you have a complaint about something that’s happening in the facility, telling the administrator of the facility that there’s a problem seems counterproductive in many, many ways … So, my belief is, nothing happens, ever, out of the ombudsmans’s office.”

Other advocates and Assembly members were critical of some of DiBenedetti’s responses, including that he has not visited Mahan since early 2020, although he said staff members have been there since the January assaults and that he sees his office’s role as primarily responding to inmates’ complaints about living conditions there. Mukherji asked why it took a DOJ report to expose civil rights violations at Mahan.

“Why didn’t it come from you?” Mukherji asked. “Why weren’t you doing this over the course of the last decade?”

“We can only report on the contacts and the contacts and the complaints that we receive,” DiBenedetti replied, saying any complaints would have been referred to the DOC and its special investigations division.

An ombudsman, not a watchdog

Mukjerji said the Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act gave made DiBenedetti’s office “one of the most robust external watchdogs of a state prison system in the country,” but the ombudsperson did not fully agree.

“I believe that some believe that this office staff has the ability to investigate criminal actions and we’re not, we’re not law enforcement agents,” said DiBenedetti, adding that his office’s actions have been hampered by staff cuts over the years.

Following the hearing, Dunn and the other two Republican Assembly members, Nancy Munoz (R-Union) and Christopher DePhillips (R-Bergen) jointly called for both Hicks and DiBenedetti to be replaced.

“There is a complete lack of leadership from the top of the Department of Corrections that trickles down,” they said in a statement. “Everyone has to go. The time for delay and investigation has passed.”

Mukherji asked Hicks why it has taken so long to finish the installation of cameras around Mahan, which would be able to capture any assaults on video, saying discussions with lawmakers date back four years. He said more than 300 have been installed to date and the work should be completed by September, but it was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers heard recommendations from a number of experts and advocates on ways to improve Mahan and the corrections system, as they continued to hear how hard it is to change a culture that has allowed abuse and assault to continue. A seemingly frustrated Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D-Bergen), vice-chair of the Women and Children Committee, asked Todd Clear, a Rutgers professor of corrections, whether the state should close Mahan and transfer the women somewhere else.

“That’s an option that really should be considered,” Clear said. “It is very difficult to change institutional culture. It would be far easier to build a new institution and have it start out with a culture that can be maintained … I really think the question is, is secure confinement really necessary for all these individuals who are there or is some less secure option that enables an easier level of security possible for a large portion of the people?”

Mukerji said the committees will continue their inquiries and consider more reforms. Their next step is a tour of Mahan, planned for April 19.

“These committees will be considering legislative action that can have true impact beyond the already robust dignity act framework, which became effective last year, but hasn’t even been fully implemented,” he said. “There has existed for years a culture of impunity at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women and there needs to be a culture of accountability.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-04-09 02:30:49 -0700