New Jersey’s only women’s prison will close, Gov. Phil Murphy announced this week, following the release of a scathing independent report that detailed allegations of abuse against inmates.
Corrections officers at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women (EMCF) were accused of committing graphic acts of brutality against inmates on the night of January 11 in the report, commissioned by Murphy that month. Murphy said in light of the report’s findings, the “only path forward is to responsibly close the facility.”
“While this will not happen overnight, I intend to work with legislative leadership during the current budget cycle to allocate funding to begin this multi-year process,” he said in a prepared statement, urging the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) to implement reforms on body cameras and training, among other policies.
Inmates will be transferred to a new facility or existing ones, Murphy said.
Law firm Lowenstein Sandler LLP conducted the investigation, led by former state comptroller and federal prosecutor Matthew Boxer.
The report outlines a series of abuses that took place in the overnight hours of January 11 amid a series of inmate cell extractions, or removals of inmates from their quarters, during which corrections officers reportedly physically assaulted inmates.
The extractions are said to have taken place after inmates “splashed” corrections officers with bodily fluids and other unidentified liquids, according to the report. They were conducted in a section of the facility where inmates who commit “medium” disciplinary infractions are housed, DOC Commissioner Marcus Hicks told the investigators.
One inmate who reportedly resisted the officers’ commands and fought back wrote in subsequent statements that, during the four forcible extractions, officers bent her arm back, cracking it out of place, and one officer had “choked her, grabbed her breast, and ‘put his hands in [her] vagina,’ scratching it and causing it to bleed,” according to the report.
Officers reportedly sprayed a second inmate with pepper spray through her food port, violating DOC policy, and pushed her against the wall. A third inmate was reportedly punched while handcuffed and suffered an orbital wall fracture, the report says.
Facility staff filed false reports after the extractions, according to the investigation’s findings.
Boxer’s report also found that, prior to the events of January 11, key DOC leadership was not in place, pandemic-related difficulties heightened tensions between inmates, DOC’s ombudsman was not notified of the cell extraction plan, and some corrections officers involved in the incident had engaged in misconduct during prior extractions.
In the wake of excessive force allegations, the Office of State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has charged 10 corrections officers during its ongoing investigation of the incident. Portions of Boxer’s report are redacted due to that investigation, according to Murphy.
Hicks announced Tuesday that he’d resign from the DOC, effective June 18.
In a statement, Hicks said he was “proud of the work we’ve done and wish our staff and individuals under our care well as the Department continues its mission to ensure safety and promote rehabilitation.”
DOJ Inquiry finds systemic abuse
It’s not the first time EMCF has faced credible allegations of abuse among corrections staff.
Last April, the Department of Justice wrote in a notice after a two-year investigation that there is “reasonable cause to believe” that conditions at EMCF violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” due to “the sexual abuse of prisoners by the facility’s staff” and that “these violations are pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of rights protected by the Eighth Amendment.”
The DOJ wrote that the facility “fails to protect victims who report excuse abuse from retaliation,” subjects those who do report sexual abuse to “hard and isolating conditions,” and that officials at the facility knew about the abuse and disregarded it, among other findings.
NJ Department of Corrections takes steps to correct course
After the events of January 11, the New Jersey DOC took steps including establishing an early warning system to detect trends in staff conduct, deploying a bodycam program and hiring a criminal justice consulting firm to assist in further steps, the department told CNN.
“Safety and security are of paramount importance to the Department. From first learning of the January 11 incident at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, the Department took swift action to suspend 34 staff members and immediately sought the assistance of the Office of the Attorney General and the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the conduct for potential criminal prosecution,” DOC spokeswoman Liz Velez said in a statement to CNN.
“The NJDOC believes in transparency, and in the spirit of transparency, fully supported and cooperated with the independent report commissioned by Governor Murphy on the events of January 11. The Department is reviewing the recommendations and is committed to partnering together with stakeholders to implement these reforms and further safeguard those incarcerated in DOC facilities,” she said.
In a briefing with reporters Monday afternoon, Murphy declined to comment on whether he will fire the DOC commissioner, while reiterating that he found Boxer’s report “very disturbing.”
When reached by CNN two separate times, operators at EMCF’s business and administration offices hung up the phone when asked for comment.