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Former Prisoners Testify on Abuse at Notorious New Jersey Women’s Prison

They said corruption and threats of retaliation were so prevalent that it created a culture of acceptance that has persisted for decades.

In April of this year, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the New Jersey District Attorney’s Office (DAO) released a 29-page report prepared after a two-year-long investigation of Edna Mahan, which stated that conditions at the prison violated prisoners’ constitutional rights. It gave a list of “Minimal Remedial Measures” necessary to rectify the situation. The report stated that these remedial measures must be addressed or the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) would be liable to lawsuit.

The investigation began after a series of arrests over a number of years (See: PLN, June 2019, p. 48). With the assistance of two expert consultants in correctional operations and sexual safety, an investigation team conducted a four-day on-site review, interviewed Edna Mahan employees and prisoners, reviewed 33,000 pages of documentation and over 70 reported allegations of prisoner sexual abuse. They found that conditions were cruel and unusual, violating the Eighth Amendment and that there existed a pattern and practice that created a culture of abuse.

The report claimed that the prison had insufficient supervision, allowing for incidents of abuse to occur, and that the administration at Edna Mahan did not provide an adequate response to allegations of abuse. It said substantiated cases were “varied and disturbing.”

Guards forced prisoners to exchange sex for food, medication, contraband and even basic supplies. They used threats of disciplinary action and parole eligibility to force prisoners into sexual situations. “Viewing parties” were held where several guards told a mentally ill prisoner who believed she was a man to strip for them and show them her “penis.”

Even basic pat searches and shakedowns turned into abusive situations with guards calling the prisoners “hoes,” “dykes” and “bitches,” groping prisoners’ breasts and buttocks, or rubbing themselves up against prisoners.

These incidents continued well after the DOJ and DAO informed the NJDOC that they were investigating sexual abuse in the prison. Three guards were independently charged with some form of sexual assault during the two-year investigation. One was assigned to training the newly hired in the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards — that guards having sex with prisoners could be criminally charged.

The report stated the administration at Edna Mahan had been told on several occasions by other investigating teams that they needed more camera surveillance, tighter security measures, more gender-specific posts and more serious attention to incident reports and confidentiality (internal office workers monitoring the PREA hotline had labeled it the “snitch line”).

The report said the Special Investigations Division (SID) responsible for allegations of abuse failed to adequately investigate situations or to disclose personal involvement with those being investigated.

This created an environment where incidents were covered up, guards could use the threat of retaliation, and accountability was lacking. In fact, none of the SID personnel had received the required training for sexual abuse investigations.

Standard operating procedures for Edna Mahan when a prisoner reported some form of sexual abuse was to move that prisoner to the Temporary Closed Custody (TCC) unit until the investigation was completed. Prisoners who go to TCC lose all privileges, job assignments and housing, and are placed on 24-hour a day lockdown. These apparent punitive actions dissuade prisoners from reporting abuse.

The DOJ and DAO made a number of recommendations that the NJDOC should follow at Edna Mahan to rectify the abusive culture, including adding more security cameras in blind spots, cease sending prisoners to TCC pending investigations unless absolutely necessary, implementing a system monitoring potential retaliation, providing adequate training to staff and investigative teams and hire more women to create more gender-specific posts.

The report stated that it was not a tribunal where evidence must be found “beyond a shadow of a doubt” and that the report could not be submitted as admissible evidence, but if NJDOC did not address the recommendations within a 49-day period, the Attorney General could file suit forcing the department to comply.