Murphy says NJ will close troubled Edna Mahan women’s prison
TRENTON – New Jersey plans to permanently close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, in the wake of the violent cell extractions on Jan. 11 that were the latest and perhaps last in a series of scandals at the state’s only women’s prison.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced his intention Monday, as his administration released an investigative report done by former State Comptroller Matt Boxer and the law firm Lowenstein Sandler.
“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 state’s care,” Murphy said.
Murphy said “the only path forward is to responsibly close the facility” and relocate inmates to a new facility or other facilities. He said that process will take a few years and that he intends to work with legislators to include funding in the upcoming fiscal 2022 budget to get started.
“I am deeply disturbed and disgusted by the horrific attacks that took place on Jan. 11,” Murphy said. “Individuals in state custody deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and the officers involved in this incident, both directly and indirectly, abused their power to send a message that they were in charge. The excessive use of force, as outlined in the report, cannot and will not be tolerated by my administration.”
Boxer’s report recommended that the state consider closing Edna Mahan, which currently houses approximately 372 inmates at its facility in Union Township in Hunterdon County, near Clinton, given the prison’s “lengthy negative history of misconduct.”
“One of the experts we interviewed, who has decades of experience in corrections, questioned, in light of the momentum of negative issues at and attention to the facility, whether EMCF can be “saved” in a reasonable amount of time,” the report says.
The report says the expense associated with a closure and transfer of inmates would be significant but that the state may find another valuable purpose for the roughly 330-acre prison campus.
“With the facility being more than 100 years old, it is in any event in need of significant repair and improvement," it says. "In addition, as described above, NJDOC has encountered difficulty recruiting female staff to EMCF’s location in western New Jersey. A different, more centrally located facility has the potential to address these issues.”
Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, said the abuses at Edna Mahan were a result of Murphy and Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks failing to heed federal warnings or hold staff accountable.
“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," Corrado said. "The building didn’t fail these women, the Murphy administration did.”
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, applauded the decision to close Edna Mahan and said the report affirms her belief new leadership is needed across the Department of Corrections.
"“Let us be clear, closing a correctional facility is one thing, but greater and more lasting reforms are needed, including updated camera protocols," Weinberg said. "We also need an independent public advocate to protect our most vulnerable citizens whether in state custody or state care, and an overall change of culture at the DOC. That change must start at the top, with the immediate resignation of Commissioner Marcus Hicks."
Investigators described the video recordings of the cell extractions on Jan. 11 as “exceedingly violent and … alarming in a way that is difficult to put into words.” The report said one senior NJDOC official called it “one of the most disturbing series of videos I have ever seen.”
To date, 10 corrections officers have been charged with alleged crimes in connection with the cell extractions, in which multiple inmates suffered serious injuries and one alleged a sexual assault. Parts of the independent report were temporarily redacted to avoid interfering with the ongoing investigation.
Officers and civilian staff at the prison have been the subject of multiple allegations of sexual assaults. In April, the state agreed to pay nearly $21 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by current and former inmates over abuse dating to 2014.
The U.S. Justice Department last year concluded the facility was failing to protect prisoners’ rights and prevent sexual abuse. A settlement of the investigation, including the appointment of a federal monitor, is awaiting DOJ approval.
The report said there were 275 cell extractions in all Department of Corrections facilities in the three years between May 2018 and April 2021, including 21 at Edna Mahan, of which 17 involved the use of force and four did not.
It says senior department officials said cell extractions on "third shift," the overnight shift between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. during which the Jan. 11 incident took place, are highly disfavored unless there is an emergency because fewer employees are at work. One former high-ranking official told investigators late-night extractions are done "for one reason: there are fewer people around and fewer eyes."
Hicks told investigators that in 2020 he had verbally communicated a directive that cell extractions shouldn't be done on third shift and would need approval from the central office to proceed. The directive was not provided in writing or email.
The report said changes in leadership at Edna Mahan contributed to the Jan. 11 incident.
The facility’s administrator, Sarah Davis, worked her last day on Oct. 29, 2020, and was using accumulated leave time until her Feb. 1 retirement. The department “appears to have been caught flat-flooted” by her departure, as the facility didn’t have an acting administrator until Patricia McGill took the job Jan. 16.
Hicks said Erica Stern, an associate administrator transferred to Edna Mahan, was the acting administrator. But Stern said, and personnel records appear to confirm, she didn’t serve in that capacity – and was on leave during the week that included Jan. 11. A second associate administrator, Sean St. Paul, had oversight that night.
“This failure to ensure that proper leadership was in place at a women’s prison that has been plagued by a culture of rape and abuse falls directly on Commissioner Hicks," said Sen. Dawn Addiego, D-Burlington. "How could this happen nine months after the U.S. Justice Department found that corrections officers routinely violated the civil and constitutional rights of women inmates? Women inmates should not have to live in fear.”
Due to the pandemic, which converted some disciplinary housing into quarantine wings, it became difficult to separate inmates who don’t get along, according to the report. There had also been a jump in “splashing” assaults in which inmates squirt correctional officers with liquid, often urine or feces, which are rarely prosecuted, to the frustration of officers.
Around five officers had been the target of splashing incidents in the hours before the violent cell extractions on the night of Jan. 11. However, two hours had gone by and a shift change had taken place before the first cell extraction.
“In the absence of a true emergency, the motives underlying the conduct here become more apparent,” the report says. “As opposed to an attempt to quell a legitimate emergency, the cell extractions were a misguided effort by frustrated employees to restore order and mete out discipline in response to splashing and other events.”
The extractions weren’t properly recorded with a video camera, as policy requires. Required details weren’t recorded, and portions or all of the extractions weren’t taped. Hicks told investigators he thought the inadequate filming was intentional.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.