A call to help women released from NJ’s scandal-ridden prison
A report by a newly created commission is calling for expanded programs for New Jersey women who reenter society after serving time in prison.
The Women’s Reentry Commission, established by the New Jersey Reentry Corporation headed up by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, is also calling for better oversight and safer conditions for women who are incarcerated in the Garden State.
During a Monday news conference outside the statehouse, Monmouth County resident Toni Bolton said her six years in prison — two stints at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, on robbery, drug and parole violation convictions — was the worst, scariest experience of her life.
She alleged in many cases inmates are classified as bipolar and put on medication no matter what kind of trauma or bad experience they may have gone through. She said sexual harassment and abuse by prison staff is constant, and inmates are always told they are wrong about everything.
“There’s so many women down there that are scared to talk up and scared to speak and who are being abused on a daily basis and can’t do anything about it, and women are dying down there,” she said. “I thank God I made it out.”
Through tears she continued: "Everybody thinks that it’s not so bad and, oh just send everybody away and just them to prison and it will make life better, and it really doesn’t. It makes you so much worse.”
Bolton told New Jersey 101.5 she has not filed formal complaints against prison officials because “when you’re in there you don’t want to speak up — people have died, and I didn’t want to die."
A federal Justice Department report released earlier this year found a pattern of abuse at Mahan to be so rampant that it violated inmates' constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. It described women being regularly sexually assaulted, humiliated and otherwise abused by guards.
In a statement described by NJ.com in April, the Department of Corrections placed blame for the abuse on the “previous administration” and described reforms meant to curb it. The DOC said it had launched a “third-party all-female” board to advise the state on problems, NJ.com reported. The state also cited increased use of surveillance cameras and a pilot program for DOC officers to wear body cameras.
A resolution passed by the state Senate and Assembly this summer created a commission to review those reforms. Sponsors noted in a press release at the time that over the span of a decade, "eight different employees were arrested for sexual abuse while several other employees were fired or suspended due to abuse allegations."
Monday, Bolton said being incarcerated in New Jersey and having a felony record “you’re just destined for doom. You can’t get ahead in life. You can’t get anywhere It’s so hard to move ahead ever since I came home from prison.”
Other former inmates spoke of being abused, terrified, humiliated and punished. Sometimes, they said, it seemed to be for no reason.
Kathy Morse, the legal services coordinator for the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, said for far too long the needs of women have taken a backseat to men simply because there were many more male prisoners than females, but “women’s incarceration or detention has grown at twice the rate compared to their male counterparts in recent decades.”
Last year, she said "18,600 women were released from jails and prisons across the state and over 60% of these women suffer from a mental illness. and over 70 are the victims of domestic violence.”
She said the vast majority of these ex-convicts are the primary caretakers of their children under the age of 18 “and the ripple effects of extended incarceration of a mother of young children can be devastating.”
“The median length of stay for a woman in state prison is less than three years, “just long enough to ensure loss of home, job, and in many instances, custody of their children," Morse said.
She said the first priority of women is and always will be their children, but reentry for them is complicated.
“Like a puzzle there are so many pieces that must fall exactly into place for it to be considered successful,” she said. “Unfortunately in New Jersey there are really no post-release programs targeted specifically for women and girls.”
Morse said formally incarcerated women are more likely to be homeless than formally incarcerated men, and have a greater chance to be put back in prison.
“Not because they commit crimes, but because they can run afoul of one of the obligations of their parole or probation supervision, a place to live,” she said.
She stressed reentry programs “must provide adequate medical and mental health services, including treatment for trauma and domestic and sexual violence.”
She added programs should also include substance abuse counseling, parenting and employment training, and “we must provide reentry services that provide housing until women can get solidly on their feet, if not we are merely setting them up for failure.”
State Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, both attended the news conference and vowed to support legislation to improve reentry services for women.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.