Gov. Philip D. Murphy said that he would shut down Edna Mahan, New Jersey’s only women’s prison, because of a “long history of abusive incidents.”
Tracey Tully | June 7, 2021
Just over a year ago, the Justice Department offered a scathing indictment of New Jersey’s only prison for women, describing a culture of sexual violence by guards so entrenched that it violated prisoners’ constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment.
But the string of scandals continued. After a day of mounting tension in January that included prisoners flinging bodily fluids at guards, officers violently removed several women from their cells during a midnight raid. One woman was punched in the face 28 times, the state’s attorney general said.
On Monday, in a stunning declaration that the problems were beyond repair, Gov. Philip D. Murphy announced that the prison, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, would be permanently closed.
The governor’s decision comes as states and cities around the country are reckoning with violence and abuse behind bars, and as officials are beginning to heed calls to rethink incarceration.
In New York City, there are plans to shut down the notorious Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with smaller, community-based lockups. Other states, including California, Connecticut and Missouri, have moved to close facilities amid a decline in the prison population tied to decreased crime rates and an emphasis on drug treatment instead of incarceration for some offenses.
The shutdown is expected to take years, and it is unclear where the 384 women housed at the prison in western New Jersey would go.
Groups that work with prisoners appeared divided on the plan to close Edna Mahan, with some hailing it as an opportunity to further reduce the population of women behind bars, while others worried about the upheaval the move could cause.
Women at Edna Mahan were already reeling from the January attack, and Mr. Murphy’s announcement follows more than a year of extraordinary Covid-19-related restrictions. Visitors were barred, and prisoners lived in fear of contracting the virus, which raced unchecked through many of the country’s large, crowded prison facilities.
New Jersey released thousands of inmates from its jails and prisons to try to slow the spread, yet a New York Times database found that 31 of every 100 prisoners eventually contracted the virus, nearly three times the statewide rate of infection.
Bonnie Kerness, a program director with the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch, said Mr. Murphy should have allowed lawmakers and advocates time to evaluate recommendations outlined in a state-funded report that was also released on Monday before making the sweeping closure announcement.
The damning 73-page report presented a portrait of a facility beset by administrative chaos.
“Wouldn’t it be more logical to punish the abusers and continue the work on reform of the organizational culture?” said Ms. Kerness, who is in regular communication with women at the facility.
“The beatings were a condition of confinement having nothing to do with the physical structure,” she added.
Jeanne LoCicero, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the shutdown was an incomplete solution. “Changing a name or location does little to check the systemic and cultural issues plaguing our state’s prison system, and it will not prevent further injustices,” she said.
The number of women housed at Edna Mahan, a sprawling facility in Hunterdon County that first opened in 1913 and can house more than 700 people, has been declining, tracking a nationwide trend. In June, it housed the 384 nonviolent and violent offenders in three compounds.
Edna Mahan would be the third prison to close in New Jersey in several years, and Mr. Murphy, a Democrat who is running for re-election, said the women would be relocated to a new prison or “other facilities.”
William Sullivan, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, Local 105, the union that represents the state’s 6,000 correction officers, said he was blindsided by the announcement. Mr. Sullivan said the decision appeared to be aimed at distracting from the problems laid out in the report, including pay disparity and guard recruitment challenges.
“I think it’s an overreach — more of a feel-good kind of maneuver rather than a fix-the-problem reaction,” Mr. Sullivan said.
Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice reform group based in Washington, said the decision matched the goals of nationwide efforts focused on lowering the number of female prisoners nationwide and relocating those who are sentenced to prison to be closer to their families.
“There should be a priority to keep people close to home,” Ms. Porter said.
Any proposal to build a prison is likely to face fierce opposition, as has happened in Massachusetts and Texas, where proponents of reducing incarceration have fought against the construction of new lockups.
And in New York, several candidates in the upcoming mayoral election have attacked the move to replace Rikers Island, leaving the plan’s future uncertain.
Mr. Murphy has ignored a drumbeat of criticism by legislators who have demanded that he fire his corrections commissioner, Marcus O. Hicks, in response to the Jan. 11 melee. The Justice Department report found pervasive sexual abuse at Edna Mahan and called for sweeping changes to address “systemic failures.”
Women were regularly sexually assaulted by guards and sometimes forced to engage in sex acts with other prisoners while staff members looked on, the report, issued in April 2020, found. Several guards had been convicted in 2018 and 2019 of sexually assaulting women, but the problem persisted.
The report ordered New Jersey to implement reforms that ranged from adding female staff members and cameras to removing defunct, empty facilities where some of the abuse occurred.
In response, state correction officials made some staffing changes and added additional stationary and body-worn cameras. The state hired an advocate for victims of sexual assault, Helena Tomé, as a liaison to the women in the state’s care.
The corrections department also hired a private consultant, the Moss Group, weeks after the January cell extractions, and Mr. Murphy commissioned the state’s former comptroller, Matt Boxer, to conduct a private investigation as the state’s attorney general pursued criminal charges against officers.
The result was the report released on Monday, which documented weeks of tension before the January episode.
“Officers felt that inmates were not being held accountable for their actions and that their supervisors were not protecting them,” the report states.
The officers, Mr. Murphy said, “abused their power to send a message that they were in charge.”
He said he had concluded that “the only path forward is to responsibly close the facility.”
Within hours of Mr. Murphy’s announcement, two state senators said the development offered a welcome opportunity to rethink where and why women are imprisoned.
“As we plan for the future,” said Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat who represents Essex County, “we should ensure that our women who have suffered abuse and neglect for so long can be transferred to facilities closer to their homes where they can receive support from their families.”