Lawmakers want answers on sex abuse at N.J. women’s prison, but Murphy officials will skip hearing

Lawmakers want answers on sex abuse at N.J. women’s prison, but Murphy officials will skip hearing

For the second time in two years, officials in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration will be no-shows at a public hearing on the sexual abuse and exploitation of inmates at New Jersey’s women’s prison.

On the heels of a scathing federal report that found New Jersey failed to stop sex abuse of inmates at the state women’s prison by staff, state lawmakers are convening a legislative hearing on conditions at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

The Senate Law and Public Safety Committee will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. May 12. It will be remote due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice found conditions at New Jersey’s lone women’s prison violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because state authorities had for years ignored claims of sexual abuse of prisoners.

The report found “credible allegations of sexual abuse by both correction officers and civilian staff continued to surface throughout 2018 and into 2019, despite the attention focused on the issue.”

State Sen. Linda Greenstein, who heads the Senate committee, convened a public hearing in 2018 following a series of reports from NJ Advance Media that found problems in the women’s prison were far more widespread than corrections officials had publicly acknowledged.

Officials from Murphy’s administration, which at the time had only been in office for a few weeks, did not participate.

Following that hearing, Greenstein said Friday, “I thought we would be in a much better place than we find ourselves in today.”

Now lawmakers will again probe problems at Edna Mahan. But the Department of Corrections still won’t show.

“I think it’s necessary to hold this hearing in order to get more information from the experts and find out what can be done to ensure that the inmates in our care are safe and are treated with dignity and respect,” Greenstein said in a statement.

A spokesman for Murphy, Jerrel Harvey, said Friday the department “will not be participating.” He would not say why.

In an interview in April following the Justice report, Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks told NJ Advance Media many of the problems at Edna Mahan were “inherited” from the previous administration.

“I don’t say that as a way to shirk our responsibility to keep people safe,” he said. “I say that as a matter of fact.”

“We all acknowledge that this is a continuing issue that we have to address,” Hicks said. “I think we’ve shown our commitment to addressing this issue.”

The Department of Justice report found sexual abuse and exploitation of inmates at Edna Mahan had persisted for decades, and continued after reform measures implemented by Murphy’s administration.

“I don’t think that any of us are saying we’ve solved all the problems, and clearly we have a DOJ report that highlighted what took place,” Hicks said. “We’re saying we’ve taken proactive steps.”

Hicks noted the department has installed more cameras inside the prison, re-established an all-female board of trustees and is rolling out a pilot program for corrections officers to wear body cameras, among other steps.

But the Justice report found many reform measures had fallen short. Among them, a policy requiring supervisors at the prison to audit the camera system to detect bad behavior had faltered because supervisors refused to comply and were never disciplined.

“Lieutenants and other high-level officers indicated a reluctance to review footage for evidence of staff misconduct, which they would then be required to report to the administrator for corrective action,” the report said.

The report found that some officers and supervisors believed the abuse claims were overblown due to media coverage of the issue.

“We don’t believe this is just something that is being drummed up by the media,” Hicks told NJ Advance Media. “You’ve never heard me or the governor say that. We have taken this very seriously and we continue to do so.”

NJ Advance Media requested the department produce any evidence that staff had been disciplined for failing to comply with reform measures. Hicks said that “we definitely note your request,” but after more than two weeks, a spokesman for Murphy said they could not provide such information.

“Due to open investigations and in anticipation of potential litigation, the department cannot discuss specific disciplinary actions,” said Harvey, the spokesman.

The Justice report also raised alarming concerns about New Jersey’s prison internal affairs unit, the Special Investigations Division, finding it was rife with conflicts of interest and failed to vet claims of abuse.

In response, Adrian Ellison, the president of the union representing SID investigators, told NJ Advance Media that SID management had hampered their efforts to properly investigate abuse allegations and called for leadership change. The corrections department did not respond to those claims.

Witnesses scheduled for the remote hearing include prison reform activists, advocates for survivors of sexual abuse and representatives of state corrections unions.

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S.P. Sullivan may be reached at ssullivan@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

Published at Sat, 09 May 2020 04:44:00 +0000

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