by Jayson Hawkins
On the night of January 20, 2021, as the nation was buckling beneath the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a cascade of violence was unfolding inside a women’s prison in New Jersey.
Prisons are not immune to the social stresses playing out across the rest of the country, and guards would later testify that those stresses played a role in what occurred at the Edna Mahan State Prison. The incident that sparked the conflict was an alleged “splashing”—a prisoner splashing bodily fluids on a guard.
Prison staff, according to union statements, were frustrated because splashing incidents were supposedly being treated with leniency by administrators.
A report released in June 2021 by the state comptroller and an independent investigator found that this frustration led guards to take matters into their own hands. They dressed in riot gear and began a series of forced cell removals that lasted well into the early morning hours. Five women were removed from their cells, and despite the fact that the reports submitted immediately following the incident claimed no one was seriously injured, one woman suffered a fractured orbital bone, another ended up with a broken arm, and a third had severe bruising and lacerations on her skull.
Investigators noted a series of policy violations in the incident. Cell removals are supposed to be filmed, but some of the removals that night were not filmed at all and those that were generally show only the backs of the guards with hardly a glimpse of the prisoner being restrained. All guards involved in a removal must be identified by name, but this did not occur.
When investigators discovered the excessive force in this incident and submitted their report to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, he decided that the prison needed to be shut down to close the book on a long history of physical and sexual abuse at the facility. Critics have said the closure will not change the prison culture that led to the abuses at the prison.
The history of abuse at Edna Mahan stretches back years. The prison first opened in 1913 and is the only women’s facility in the state. It currently houses 372 prisoners who are split into minimum- and maximum-security areas.
Between 2016 and 2018, six guards and one civilian staff member were charged with crimes related to prisoner abuse, including sexual assault. There have been a host of civil suits alleging excessive force and sexual abuse. These have been settled for millions of dollars, including a $21 million settlement in a sexual assault suit earlier this year. More recently, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the administration of the prison because they found the “New Jersey Department of Corrections fails to keep prisoners at Edna Mahan safe from sexual abuse by staff.”
Reforms initiated by the federal government have not been fully implemented, and the possibility of closing the prison had been under consideration for some time. A New Jersey State Corrections Commissioner told the state assembly budget committee that “the state might consider shutting down the prison following the continuing allegations of abuse behind bars.”
The report was also critical of the Ombudsman office and its director Dan Di Benedetti, who has since retired. The report noted the office had “largely become, in effect, an office that receives complaints and then simply refers to another to resolve them.”
The report was, to Gov. Murphy, the final straw. “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,” Murphy said.
The governor’s critics are not satisfied with what they see as a symbolic act. State Senator Kristin Corrado, who has repeatedly called out the Murphy administration for failing to hold abusive guards accountable, stated, “The building did not fail these women. The Murphy administration did.”
Other senators are not so critical of the move. Sen. Linda Greenstein has said shutting Mahan is “the best and only decision to be made.”
Thirty-four staff members have been suspended and ten charged with a variety of crimes in the wake of the investigation into the events of January 12, 2021. The day after the report was released Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks resigned, and the position has yet to be filled. It is unclear if holding these guards accountable or closing the Edna Mahan prison will finally change the culture of abuse that has so stubbornly dogged New Jersey prisons.
Editor’s Note: It is a sad commentary on the American police state that politicians admit they are unable to control their employees and keep them from raping and abusing the prisoners in their care and custody. As we go to press, the NJ DOC lacks a senate confirmed commissioner and the ombudsman position is also vacant. The prison has also yet to actually be closed. It is also unclear where the 400 women prisoners held at the prison will be sent if it actually closes.
Source: nj.com, northjersey.com
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