A federal investigation has found that inmates at New Jersey’s only state prison for women have been sexually abused for years by staff who created a disturbing “culture of acceptance” that ignored past known violations and complaints.
Inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment that included them being forced to engage in sexual acts with staff to avoid punishment or in exchange for items like cigarettes. Most of the incidents involved senior officials who had worked at the facility for many years, according to a detailed report released Monday by the Department of Justice.
“Substantiated incidents of staff sexual abuse of prisoners at Edna Mahan are varied and disturbing,” the report states.
According to the DOJ’s report, inmates were forced to engage in sexual acts with staff as well as other prisoners, to undress and sexually touch themselves in their cells while staff watched, and in one instance an inmate was ordered to keep watch while being sexually abused by a correctional officer. In other incidents, women said officers would “rub” or “press” their clothed genitals against them, would strip search them as male correctional officers watched and made sexual comments. One woman said a male officer watched as she inserted a tampon.
If a prisoner reports allegations of sexual abuse, they undergo a physical examination while in handcuffs and shackles, are strip-searched and then moved to the maximum-security compound where they are held for up to 72 hours in solitary confinement until they are interviewed. They are then likely to be moved from their unit or their job instead of the alleged abuser being moved away from them, which the NJDOC has the authority to do. This entire process is viewed as “retaliatory, punitive, and traumatic” by the inmates, which could dissuade victims to speak out about abuse, the report said.
The facility, which has a population capacity of approximately 710, houses women of all custody levels, including minimum-, medium- and maximum-security prisoners as well as those with mental health needs.
“The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees prisoners reasonable safety from harm,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “Our investigation found reasonable cause to conclude that women prisoners at Edna Mahan are at substantial risk of sexual abuse by staff because systemic deficiencies discourage prisoners from reporting sexual abuse and allow sexual abuse to occur undetected and undeterred.”
From October 2016 to November 2019, five Edna Mahan correction officers and one civilian employee were convicted or pleaded guilty to charges related to sexual abuse of more than 10 women under their watch. A sixth has been indicted for charges related to sexual abuse of prisoners. These arrests and convictions began to take place a full year after the New Jersey Department of Corrections was notified of the DOJ’s investigation, the DOJ said.
The report noted that problems with staff sexual abuse at Edna Mahan have been documented for decades.
Despite being on notice of this sexual abuse, NJDOC and Edna Mahan failed to take timely action to remedy the systemic problems that enabled correction officers and other staff to continue to sexually abuse Edna Mahan prisoners.
“The incidents of sexual abuse follow similar patterns where officers and staff sexually assault and harass women who are vulnerable to sexual abuse and fear retaliation, violence, deprivation of privileges, or endure sexual abuse in exchange for food, medication, or contraband, in violation of the prisoners’ constitutional rights,” the report states.
One correctional officer, who admitted to repeatedly having sexual intercourse with two prisoners and was sentenced in June to three years in prison, had been tasked to teach newly hired correction officers that sexual contact between officers and prisoners was a crime.
“A ‘culture of acceptance’ of sexual abuse has persisted for many years and continues to the present,” the DOJ said. “Despite being on notice of this sexual abuse, NJDOC and Edna Mahan failed to take timely action to remedy the systemic problems that enabled correction officers and other staff to continue to sexually abuse Edna Mahan prisoners.”
The Justice Department threatened to take legal action if the NJDOC does not address the issues cited in its report within 49 days.
In an email to HuffPost, an NJDOC spokesperson said the incidents cited in the DOJ report had occurred before the facility’s current commissioner, Marcus O. Hicks, was appointed in January, and that the facility has already implemented a number of the recommendations in the report, such as installing more cameras, including ones worn by staff, and establishing gender restrictions for some posts.
The spokesperson additionally noted that NJDOC has established a third-party, all-female board of trustees to “serve as the voice of the women at EMCFW and advise us on our journey to continuous excellence.”