New Jersey Assembly Advances Five Bills Aimed at Overhauling State Prisons

The New Jersey State Assembly overwhelmingly approved a series of reforms sparked by reports of physical and sexual abuse of inmates at the state’s only women’s prison.

In addition to addressing problems at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women (EMCFW), the legislative package passed May 20 aims to improve treatment of inmates throughout the state’s entire corrections system.

The newly-approved measures include a requirement that all corrections officers wear body cameras, mandatory training on sexual assault and harassment and increasing penalties for retaliating against prisoners who report abuse.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-33), who sponsored two of the bills, said in a press statement the legislation “will improve transparency and training for corrections officers, accountability and access to reentry programs for inmates to curb recidivism.”

What Was Passed

  • A-4681: Would make more inmates eligible to participate in residential community release programs, or halfway houses, prior to release.
  • A-5039: Would require corrections officers to wear body cameras and for prisons to develop and implement plans to install state-of-the-art security camera systems.
  • A-5749: Would require special training for corrections officers who conduct sexual abuse investigations, bar those who oversee compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act from acting as investigators and require investigators to recuse themselves if they have a personal relationship with an officer under investigation.
  • A-5750: Would retaliation against inmates who report sexual abuse and make it a crime for corrections officers or civilian staffers to retaliate or fail to report known abuse. It would also require the corrections commissioner to establish a confidential and secure method for inmates to report abuse or violence.
  • A-5751: Would double the amount of mandatory basic and in-service training to 40 hours with the added time dedicated to topics such as treating inmates with dignity, fairness and respect, along with de-escalation, minimizing use of force and appropriate ways to deal with inmates from various cultures, religions and those in the LGBTQ community.

The State Senate still needs to vote on the bills before they are sent to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk.

Mukherji added that the bills “the committee’s first steps” to correct a years-long pattern of abuse of inmates by guards at the prison and that the Assembly Women and Children Committee will review additional measures in June.

Inmates ‘Need An Advocate’

As part of an effort to further investigate Edna Mahan’s troubled history, the Assembly Judiciary and Assembly Women and Children committees held a joint hearing in April, which confirmed a U.S. Department of Justice report’s finding of “systemic failure” and a “pattern of neglect and abuse” at the jail.

“The women in Edna Mahan need an advocate,” Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-7), A-5749’s sponsor, said. “They deserve a safe place to turn and be listened to if they have a complaint. The current degrading and abusive culture of Edna Mahan is coming to an end. It’s time to ensure the women of this facility and inmates in all facilities retain their basic human right—their dignity.”

To move forward, Mukherji said “culture change and additional accountability and oversight are needed” to “safeguard the basic human rights of these inmates.”

Accountability & Transparency

“It’s time for more accountability and transparency in our prison system,” Assemblywomen Yvonne Lopez (D-19), Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) and Angela McKnight (D-31), co-sponsors of A-5039, said in a joint statement.  

They added that the “egregious acts of violence and abuse” exemplifies the need for both body worn cameras and surveillance systems inside New Jersey’s correctional facilities.

Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D-38), who sponsored A-5751, believes enhanced training for officers could help change the culture, as well, and help prevent “unspeakable acts of abuse” from happening again.

“Dignity and respect are human rights regardless of where a person resides. This core belief must be ingrained in the core mission of the duties our correctional officers perform every day,” stated Swain.

Calls For Prison Reform Intensify

The legislation approved by the Assembly stemmed from ongoing investigations by federal authorities and state officials into the treatment of inmates at Edna Mahan.

An April 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Justice claimed that sexual abuse has been “severe and prevalent,” along with a “culture of acceptance,” has persisted for many years at the prison and that complaints were not being adequately investigated nor was enough being done to protect complainants from being retaliated against.

Earlier this year, the facility made headlines after New Jersey State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal criminally charged 10 guards following a “brutal attack” on inmates in January.

In April, the state paid nearly $21 million to settle 22 cases filed against the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) regarding sexual abuse and harassment.

In recent months, lawmakers have demanded that Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks be held accountable for what occurred at Edna Mahan and increasingly called for his ouster. Hicks, in response, has said an agreement with the Justice Department on a consent decree was being finalized, with a federal monitor likely to be put in place.

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