Mahan houses about 395 female prisoners in three separate units based upon the severity of their crimes. One complex is the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), which houses prisoners charged with disciplinary infractions. Two weeks prior to the incident that led to 32 guards and staff being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, five or six reports were filed by guards about prisoners spraying them with a mixture of feces and urine. Prisoners claim the guards had been antagonizing transgenders (who are also housed at Mahan), which later escalated to threats and then violence.
Guards requested extraction teams for two cells of RHU on the morning of January 11, 2021. Officials were not clear on what happened. All that is known is allegations of assault began hitting the state Ombudsman’s Office on January 13 after two dozen guards came rushing into the housing unit in full body armor.
One of the prisoners’ mothers, Timeka Rollins, said, “There was an argument between an officer and another transgender person. From there, it was the officer making threats. ‘We’re going to take care of you all,’ and stuff like that. The other inmate actually said, ‘If you’re going to do it, come do it.’ And that’s what set it off.”
Rollins’ daughter is transgender and was finally transferred to Mahan after years of abuse from male prisoners at other prisons. Her mother said she was handcuffed, thrown to the ground, had her face stomped on by guards in boots, and had the ligaments in her knee badly torn by four guards. She now has to rely on a wheelchair to get from place to place.
Several prisoners filed complaints stating that they were punched, kicked, groped, and sexually assaulted in retaliation for complaining about guards’ behaviors. Ajila Nelson said she was handcuffed as guards started punching and kicking her. She was stripped naked and dragged into the shower where a guard climbed on top of her, groped her, and sexually assaulted her. At least three prisoners have to receive severe medical treatment, one for a broken eye socket.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy called for an independent investigation on top of the existing criminal investigation. He appointed state comptroller Matt Boxer to conduct this second investigation. “I’m outraged by what happened,” stated Murphy. “I’m sick to my stomach but there are ongoing both criminal and now independent investigations which I’ve ordered. We need to understand exactly what happened. Let me be clear: Every individual in state custody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and we must always remember that female inmates have long been uniquely vulnerable to abuse. Any individual who acted improperly will be held fully accountable.”
Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez has sponsored legislation related to prison reform. She recently introduced a bill that would make New Jersey the first state to require guards to wear body cameras. She said, “It makes me physically ill to think that every day women are enduring these barbaric conditions.”
The incident prompted a call for Murphy to fire the state’s top correctional official, Marcus Hicks, and to fully implement the initiatives in a bill he signed into law last year expanding parental rights of prisoners and creating an independent review board to ensure accountability of the Department of Corrections (DOC).
The Office of the Ombudsman was appointed as the review board and was to be completely separate and independent from the DOC, which has yet to take place.
Murphy said he was not removing Hicks. As soon as Hicks heard the allegations, he placed 22 employees at Mahan on administrative leave and called for a criminal investigation to show his commitment to stopping this kind of abuse. Two of Mahan’s top officials have left the prison since the incident, one retired and the other placed on leave pending the investigations.
This is not the first such incident at Mahan. The most recent investigation conducted by the DOJ resulted in a report that stated officials at the prison violated prisoners’ constitutional rights by failing to protect them from assault and sexual abuse. The scathing report said abuse at the prison was ‘‘severe and prevalent’’ and guards encouraged a ‘‘culture of acceptance’’ that has existed for decades.
AFSC’s Prison Watch Program director, Bonnie Kerness, provides support to women in prison. She brings their stories to light and shares them with governors, state legislators, advocates, and the media.
In an email to Corrections Commissioner Hicks, she stated, “In my 40 years as an advocate on behalf of people in prison, I can attest that torture in New Jersey prisons and jails has escalated; that cruelty happens with impunity and that it appears that no one is accountable. This despite the set of legislation passed to ensure the protection of the women in care of NJ’s imprisonment system; this despite the scathing Department of Justice report. The Office of the Ombudsman has assured us that investigations are taking place — again. And again, we anticipate the removal of those who committed the violence. Even if this happens, our questions remain the same. How, then, do we change the culture that not only permits such abuse, but accepts it.”
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