N.J. to enter consent decree with DOJ over plagued women’s prison, commissioner says

The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. (NJ Spotlight)

The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. (NJ Spotlight)

The New Jersey Department of Corrections has reached a tentative agreement with federal authorities over how to address allegations of rampant physical and sexual abuse at the state’s only prison for women.

The U.S. Department of Justice is finalizing a consent decree it developed following an investigation that began in 2018 at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, New Jersey Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks said Thursday.

Hicks had been called to testify before a joint committee of the New Jersey Assembly several months after a series of brutal attacks by corrections officers inside the facility left prisoners with scratches, concussions, and an orbital fracture.

“I share your disgust and disappointment for the incidents of January 11,” Hicks said. “These employees violated the trust and the safety of those in our care and the faith that we put in them as public servants. No one deserves the horrific treatment that these women endured.”

Hicks did not provide any other details about the events of that night, instead deferring to an internal investigation commissioned by Gov. Phil Murphy as well as an ongoing criminal inquiry led by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office, in which eight corrections officers have been charged so far.

Allegations of sexual assault and other abuses have long plagued the Central Jersey facility, but it’s come under renewed scrutiny since January.

Hicks said the DOJ consent decree, which will address how the state can act to prevent further abuse and mismanagement at the prison, should be approved within weeks and will likely include federal monitors at Edna Mahan.

“We have been nothing but cooperative with the Department of Justice since the onset of the investigation in 2018, so I am perfectly fine working with DOJ,” he said. “I have no issues with that whatsoever.”

For three hours, lawmakers grilled Hicks over why rampant abuses have continued at the facility on his watch and why he has been unable to change the culture at the prison. Although Hicks said he took “swift action” in response to the January attacks and claimed the department has made strides to curb abuse behind bars during his tenure, he acknowledged that problems remained at Edna Mahan.

Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera, D-Gloucester, praised the majority of “wonderful” corrections officers but said leaders in the Department of Corrections have failed to rid the prison of guards who take advantage of the female prisoners there. “My purpose is to find out ‘Why are these bad apples still there?’” she said.

Nafeesah Goldsmith, who was incarcerated at Edna Mahan and released in 2015, testified that she still lives with the effects of the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of a corrections officer at the prison.

“[He] thought it was OK to grope himself in front of me, and then [he] thought it was OK to rub himself against me, and then [he] thought it was OK to make all sorts of nasty, sexist comments to me,” she said.

On Wednesday, the NJDOC announced it had reached a nearly $21 million settlement over 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse and harassment at Edna Mahan dating back to 2014.

According to officials, the settlement also “confirms” that NJDOC will equip corrections staff who regularly interact with prisoners with body cameras. The department said Tuesday that it has received its initial allotment of body cameras for its first-of-a-kind body camera program in the state’s corrections system, which will roll out first at Edna Mahan.

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