TRENTON – A half-dozen prison-related reforms, proposed in response to chronic abuse problems at New Jersey’s women’s prison, are expected to be approved Thursday by the Assembly after two committees endorsed them Tuesday.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, said the package is still just beginning of the Legislature work on the issue, with more bills to follow, but that there was a need to act swiftly. The Assembly Women and Children Committee will convene in June to review more bills concerning Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.

“We hope that it will be a step forward in addressing what the women at Edna Mahan have suffered,” Mukherji said.

The bills include:

  • A-4681: Expands eligibility for certain inmates to participate in residential community release programs; modifies DOC reporting requirements concerning capacity of these programs.
  • A-4785: Expands scope of inmate reentry assistance and benefits.
  • A-5039: Requires correctional police officers to wear body worn cameras.
  • A-5749: Concerns sexual abuse investigations in state correctional facilities
  • A-5750: Prohibits retaliation against inmates in state correctional facilities who report sexual abuse; criminalizes retaliation and failure to report abuse.
  • A-5751: Expands state corrections officers training to include topics contributing to their core mission of treating inmates with dignity, fairness, and respect.

Separately, the Department of Corrections announced that Helena Tomé has been appointed as assistant commissioner of women's services. She will serve as the liaison to the state’s incarcerated female population and work with the outside consulting firm, The Moss Group, that is analyzing Edna Mahan.

The bill prohibiting retaliation against inmates who file complaints about sexual assault or other abuse would make it a fourth-degree crime for corrections officers not to report suspected abuse.

“If you know that has happened, you must report it. And it must be criminal for you not to report that kind of wrongdoing,” Mukherji said.

Assemblyman Bob Auth, R-Bergen, said that the bill expanding training is worth it, even if there is an incremental cost increase.

“Despite any additional costs for this type of bill, the result of less lawsuits would save the state more money,” Auth said.

Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-Burlington, said the bill requiring specialized training and rules for sexual abuse investigations requires officers to disclose any personal relationships with staff members of a facility and recuse themselves from investigating that person. They could face fines of $5,000.

“Our police officers and law enforcement are also under a lot of pressure, and the training that they get from this will absolutely help conditions at Edna Mahan,” Murphy said.

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Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, opposed the bill expanding eligibility for placement in residential community release programs, more commonly known as halfway houses, because it requires the state to make every effort to fill vacancies when they become available.

Kevin McHugh, executive director of the Re-Entry Coalition of New Jersey, said almost half of state inmates are ineligible for halfway houses, increasing the chances they will commit another crime after their release.

“The idea that they can receive re-entry services in prison is ludicrous,” McHugh said.

Dan Lombardo, chief executive officer of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, said the expansion is desperately needed and that nearly anyone could be helped.

“Because what we will do when that person gets to a community program is design an individualized treatment plan to meet that person’s individual and unique needs,” Lombardo said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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