Gov. Phil Murphy plans to close New Jersey’s only women’s correctional facility after receiving an outside report on conditions at the oft-troubled prison that he labeled as “disturbing.”
The decision on closing Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women (EMCF) coincides with the publishing of Murphy-ordered independent investigative report of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) prepared by former State Comptroller Matt Boxer and the law firm Lowenstein Sandler LLP after the cell extractions at the facility that occurred on Jan. 11 that has lead to criminal charges against corrections officers.
“After reading the report and its recommendations, I have decided that the only path forward is to responsibly close the facility,” said Murphy in a press statement June 7. “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.”
The governor said the “detailed” Boxer Report investigative report provided key information about the circumstances surrounding the incidents that night and a roadmap to prevent unauthorized cell extractions and violence against inmates.
“Individuals in state custody deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and the officers involved in this incident, both directly and indirectly, abused their power to send a message that they were in charge,” said Murphy. “The excessive use of force, as outlined in the report, cannot and will not be tolerated by my Administration.”
The report includes several redactions due to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal ongoing investigation which resulted in 10 officers facing criminal charges for actions that Murphy characterized as “appalling.”
Currently, at least 30 staff have been suspended at the prison and 10 officers have been charged over inmate beatings or aiding in a coverup. Between 2016 and 2018, six correctional officers and one civilian staff member have been charged with crimes relating to sexual abuse of prisoners, including sexual assault, conspiracy to commit sexual assault, criminal sexual contact and official misconduct.
Jan. 11 Fallout
“I am deeply disturbed and disgusted by the horrific attacks that took place on January 11,” said Murphy about the findings in the report. “Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women has a long history of abusive incidents predating our Administration, and we must now commit ourselves to completely breaking this pattern of misconduct to better serve incarcerated women entrusted to the State’s care.”
The governor said will work to implement various recommendations outlined in the Boxer Report, which conducted more than 21,000 documents, conducted interviews of state officials, reviewed over 20 hours of video footage, performed statutory research, and examined relevant legal standards and best practices.
Among the revelations in the report was the lack of leadership at the facility, stating “NJDOC appears to have been caught flat-footed in response to the departure of the lead official, and someone brought in as a key reformer several years prior, at its most troubled facility.”
Failure of Leadership
In multiple interviews, including with NJDOC Commissioner Marcus Hicks, investigators were told their understanding was that Erica Stem was the Acting Administrator at the facility beginning in late November 2020. However, others, including Stem herself and the NJDOC Chief of Staff, told us that Stem was transferred to EMCF as an Associate Administrator and remained in that title, not Acting Administrator.
“In our investigative interview, Stem told us that she was not given any specific reason for her reassignment to EMCF, and confirmed that no one ever told her she would serve as Acting Administrator, and that she did not, in fact, serve in that capacity,” the report states.
Asked about Hicks’s job status, Murphy only offered “No news to make on leadership, but I’m very disturbed by the report. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Update 3 p.m. June 8: Hicks tendered his resignation on June 8.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to have served the Murphy Administration and the people of New Jersey as Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections for the past three years,” Hicks said. “I’m 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.”
Hicks, 42, joined the New Jersey Department of Corrections in 2007 after serving on Gov. Jon Corzine’s staff. He served as chief of staff at the department until Christie elevated him to acting commissioner in 2018.
Victoria Kuhn, Esq. will serve as acting commissioner. She is currently chief of staff at the Department of Corrections.
The Jan. 11 incident, according to the officers’ union president as detailed in the report, was a result of “things reached a boiling point” between officers and inmates due to incidents of officers being “splashed” — where an inmate squirts a correctional officer with liquid, often urine or feces—during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The report pointed out splashing incidents are rarely if ever criminally prosecuted, according to NJDOC officials. Instead, inmates may receive administrative disciplinary charges.
“All of this contributed to substantial frustration on the part of EMCF officers, who were upset that, in addition to the fact that inmates were not being criminally charged for splashing, the disciplinary charges they received were downgraded in some cases,” the report states. “We were told that officers felt that inmates were not being held accountable for their actions and that their supervisors were not protecting them.”
“EMCF officials we interviewed stated that custody staff was frustrated and exhausted, and felt unsupported, and that there was heightened emotion among staff as a result. One supervisor summarized things by saying (the prison) was ‘in a dire state’ by early January.”
And the report noted the physical state of the state’s women-only facility plays a role.
New Jail Needed
“At EMCF, the disrepair of the physical facility can signal to inmates, as inmates,” indicated during our interviews, “that because the State does not ‘care’ enough to fix the facility, it does not care about the inmates or their behavior, good or bad… it was nearly a universal sentiment across our investigation that the poor condition of the physical facility has contributed to low morale among both inmates and staff and interfered with best practices in a correctional setting.”
The report advocated “at a minimum” NJDOC diversify, where female inmates may be incarcerated, so there is more than one New Jersey correctional facility that can house female prisoners. NJDOC staff noted EMCF being New Jersey’s only women’s prison makes it “very difficult” to effectively separate inmates from staff or other inmates with whom they have continuing issues.
Murphy said he has directed NJDOC to implement other recommendations from the Boxer Report as soon as possible, including establishing independent oversight; further clarifying authorization protocols for cell extractions; strengthening staff recruitment, retention, and training; accelerating the implementation and adoption of body-worn cameras; and an early warning system.
The report concluded that “with the facility being more than 100 years old, it is in any event in need of significant repair and improvement. In addition, NJDOC has encountered difficulty recruiting female staff to EMCF’s location in western New Jersey. A different, more centrally located facility has the potential to address these issues.”
“In short, the structure and design of the facility itself, in addition to its condition, provides unique challenges for both facility staff and inmates. As a State, we can and must do better.”