TRENTON – A working group looking to address sexual harassment, assault and misogyny in New Jersey politics is returning its focus to New Jersey’s women’s prison, where four corrections officers face criminal charges in an ongoing investigation of mid-January assaults of inmates.

The workgroup said when it issued its recommendations in a report last month that its work was not done, and never would be. But it didn’t know at the time that more than 30 corrections officers were suspended for an incident three days earlier at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

“I think the women in this group are anxious to give voice to the women behind the walls,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen.

Following the Edna Mahan violence, Weinberg and Senate colleagues began developing a bill that would establish an independent public advocate position focused on prisons, psychiatric hospitals and homes for veterans and people with developmental disabilities.

Weinberg said such an advocate would “protect the rights of women in Edna Mahan as well as other vulnerable populations under state supervision and care.”

The bill is still in development, but Weinberg said it may be ready for introduction at the next Senate quorum call, March 4.

Bonnie Kerness, coordinator of the Prison Watch Program for the American Friends Service Committee, said she supports restoring such an independent agency with investigative and legal powers as a way to change the Department of Corrections.

“How do we change a culture that not only permits abuse but accepts it?” Kerness said. “The Department of Corrections is more than a set of institutions, it’s also a state of mind. That state of mind is what has led us here today and is at the core of the changes that are necessary.”

Kerness said she has advocated for prisoners for 40 years and that conditions have gotten worse.

“Torture in New Jersey’s prisons and jails has escalated, sexual and racial discrimination reigns, that cruelty happens with impunity, and that it appears that no one is accountable.”

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Jean R., a prisoner advocate who testified at the remote hearing, said systemic change won’t come easy and would require strong allies such as a public advocate.

“There’s no quick fix,” she told the workgroup. “Just like the issues that you have been addressing in the political arena, there’s no quick fix in total institutions such as the prisons.”

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

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