Feds, NJ agree on reforms to address women’s prison sex abuse
TRENTON – Federal prosecutors have agreed with the state on terms on a consent decree that would settle a civil-rights complaint it filed against New Jersey and the operations of the women’s prison, the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.
Prosecutors allege a pattern of sexual abuse by Edna Mahan’s staff against prisoners that has persisted for years. The consent agreement must still be approved by a federal judge, and it’s not clear when that will happen.
“The Justice Department believes that full implementation of the reforms in the proposed consent decree will ensure that women at Edna Mahan will receive one of the basic protections they are entitled to under the Constitution – to be reasonably safe from staff sexual abuse,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke.
The consent decree requires that New Jersey change policies and procedures and the way it trains correctional officers; improve transparency and reporting; implement measures to protect the prisoners from retaliation; provide adequate staffing and supervision; and ensure allegations of misconduct are properly investigated.
“The goal of this agreement is to ensure that this horrific conduct never happens again,” said Rachel Honig, the acting U.S. attorney for New Jersey.
Oversight would be provided by an independent monitor. The state and federal governments are jointly proposing that the monitor be Jane Parnell, a former prison administrator in Washington state. She would be paid up to $250,000 a year by the state for at least three years of work, according to the consent agreement.
The monitor would complete period public reports on New Jersey’s compliance and make sure information provided to stakeholders, including at public meetings with prisoners, their families and prisoner advocates. A DOJ official says she would begin by touring Edna Mahan within two months of the agreement’s approval by the court to set a baseline for measuring improvements.
The settlement and consent decree were long expected. Then-Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks told lawmakers in April that the agreement had been reached but required final approval from federal prosecutors in Washington, which he said at the time he expected within weeks.
"We look at this measure as an opportunity to close the book on the sordid history of the facility and pen a new way forward, driven by integrity, safety, and support services to help those in our care flourish," said acting Corrections Commissioner Victoria Kuhn. "We appreciate the assistance of the DOJ and welcome the partnership provided by the federal monitor."
Clarke and Honig said that if the state closes Edna Mahan, as Gov. Phil Murphy has said will happen, the consent degree will apply to any facility that replaces it.
The investigation that led to the consent decree began in 2018. The Department of Justice issued a report in April 2020 identifying repeated unconstitutional sexual abuse by prison staff and deficiencies at the prison – even before the violent forced cell extractions this past January that have led to criminal charges against 10 corrections officers and led to Hicks' ouster.
“Women prisoners are highly likely to have suffered physical and sexual abuse before their incarceration, which renders them particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and the trauma that often follows,” Clarke said. “Given this heightened vulnerability, it’s essential that we take steps to prevent this violence.”
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said "this consent decree must be only the first step" in protecting women prison inmates from sexual assault, verbal abuse and emotional trauma.
“I am thankful to the U.S. Justice Department for acting here in what appears to be full and good faith, proposing a consent decree that contains more than 100 provisions meant to bring long-needed reforms to Edna Mahan," Weinberg said. "Importantly, there will also be a federal monitor in place to make sure inmates’ basic rights are protected and that transparency is maintained."
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.