After Years Of Ignoring Abuse At A Women's Prison, Department Of Corrections Suspends Nearly Three Dozen Employees
from the ohhhhh-you-mean-the-thugs-and-rapists-not-currently-serving-time dept
How does something horrific become an epidemic? Well, if you ignore any problem long enough, it’s pretty much guaranteed to get worse.
Early last year, the DOJ released its report [PDF] on New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. The facility houses around 400 female inmates and is overseen by a little over 400 employees. Years of complaints from inmates prompted the DOJ to open an investigation in 2018. It found a pattern of rights violations, pointing out that five corrections officers had been convicted of sexual abuse charges from October 2016 to November 2019, including these three:
In May 2018, an Edna Mahan correction officer was found guilty of five counts of sexually abusing prisoners. According to the sentencing judge, the “pervasive culture” at Edna Mahan allowed this correction officer to abuse his “position of authority to indulge in [his] own sexual stimulation.”
In July 2018, another Edna Mahan correction officer pled guilty to three counts of official misconduct after he admitted sexually abusing three separate prisoners.
In January 2019, another correction officer pled guilty to official misconduct charges after admitting that he repeatedly sexually abused two Edna Mahan prisoners over a period of several years. In sentencing him, the New Jersey court concluded that the officer had “sexually assaulted a vulnerable population.”
That’s only the tip of this iceberg. The Wikipedia page for the corrections facility lists seventeen instances of corrections officers being convicted, charged, or fired for sexual misconduct, rape, or sexual assault. The list dates back to 1994, showing this to be an ongoing problem that the New Jersey Department of Corrections has yet to bring under control.
This failure to address the problem made it systemic. Here’s the conclusion reached by the DOJ following its two-year investigation:
The Department’s investigation has uncovered facts that provide reasonable cause to conclude that Edna Mahan (1) fails to protect women prisoners from sexual abuse by staff in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and (2) exposes women prisoners to substantial risk of serious harm from sexual abuse in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Systemic failures in Edna Mahan’s policies and practices discourage reporting of sexual abuse; do not provide an adequate response to and investigations of allegations of prisoner sexual abuse; and result in inadequate supervision that provides opportunities for further sexual abuse.
The details in the report are extremely disturbing.
Substantiated incidents of staff sexual abuse of prisoners at Edna Mahan are varied and disturbing. Some staff abused prisoners through unwanted and coerced “sexual contact” or “sexual penetration.” In other instances, prisoners were forced to perform fellatio on or touch the “intimate body part” of staff. In still other instances, staff required prisoners to undress or masturbate in their cells—or even engage in sexual acts with other prisoners—while staff watched. In at least one instance, a correction officer forced a prisoner to keep watch as he sexually abused her to prevent detection of his crimes.
And it gets worse:
Similarly, numerous prisoners report that, during unnecessarily close contact with male correction officers, some correction officers “rub” or “press themselves” – that is, their clothed genitals – against prisoners. Others report being strip searched with several other women at the same time or while male correction officers watched. In one instance, a prisoner reported that a male officer watched as she inserted a tampon. In another instance, it was reported that a group of officers had “viewing parties” of a prisoner with mental illness on suicide watch who believed she was a male and would follow officers’ instructions to dance and show her “penis” while undressed.
Correction officers and staff at Edna Mahan routinely refer to prisoners as “bitches,” “hoes,” “assholes,” “dyke,” “stripper,” “faggot-assed bitch,” “motherfuckers,” and “whores.” They graphically comment on prisoners’ physical appearance or remark about their perceived sexual inclinations and histories.
Prisoners reporting sexual abuse by corrections officers were retaliated against, sent to solitary confinement after being shackled and placed on a Body Orifice Security Scanner, supposedly to check for evidence of assault. (Even if true, these examinations could be performed without shackling prisoners to a chair and subjecting them to a device that searches for hidden contraband, rather than evidence of rape.) Additional privileges were also stripped from those reporting assaults by officers, with some of them losing personal possessions or work opportunities.
In addition, the reporting system was inadequate to handle complaints. And investigations by the prison were deliberately less than thorough, resulting in unearned exonerations and abandoned cases.
Almost a year after the release of this damning report, the trickle of disciplined corrections officers has become a deluge. Following these horrifying allegations, heads have finally begun to roll en masse.
One woman, Ajila Nelson, told NJ.com that officers at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility on Jan. 11 handcuffed her and others, before punching, kicking, stripping and dragging her to a shower, after which she says an unidentified male officer got on top of her and groped and sexually assaulted her.
Prisoners have told family members and advocates that at least three women at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility were hurt by officers Jan. 11, including one inmate who now has a broken eye socket and a transgender woman beaten so badly she cannot walk and is now in a wheelchair.
That got the attention of state lawmakers. And with their attention engaged, the NJ Department of Corrections finally decided — almost a year after the DOJ released its report — to start taking the problem seriously.
Thirty-one staff members at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, New Jersey’s only women’s state prison, have been suspended following reports of inmate abuse by prison guards.
The New York Times reports 22 guards, nine supervisors and the prison’s top administrator have all been suspended. The New Jersey attorney general’s office has opened an investigation into the matter and the State Assembly announced it will be holding hearings to look into the accounts of abuse.
The prison that refused to properly investigate itself is now under two new microscopes. And it has responded by suspending 7 percent of its staff. That’s huge. And there will likely be more names added to the list before these concurrent investigations are concluded.
As a nation, we claim to believe in justice: the payment of debt for wrongs against society. But what we’re really doing is handing human beings to people who don’t believe those in their charge are anything more than receptacles for abuse. It’s not enough to take their freedom away. They must also be stripped of their humanity and agency. And when crime goes down we applaud the improvement. But the criminal acts that occur in prisons and jails go ignored because it’s easier to believe whatever happens to incarcerated citizens is something they’re obligated to endure.
It’s this attitude that allows behavior like this to fester and expand until it can no longer be ignored. Edna Mahan isn’t an anomaly. It’s just the way things are. Most of it flies under the radar. Every so often, the ugliness pokes its head out of the ground and it’s no longer able to be ignored. The NJ Department of Corrections had years to address this and it chose not to. That it’s doing it now is better than nothing. But any agency that gives a damn about the people it’s overseeing would have dumped these abusers and enablers years ago — not just when faced with a bunch of bad press and government investigations.