Women’s Prison Plagued by Sexual Violence Will Close, Governor Says

Just over a yr in the past, the Justice Department supplied a scathing indictment of New Jersey’s solely jail for girls, describing a tradition of sexual violence by guards so entrenched that it violated prisoners’ constitutional protections from merciless and strange punishment.

But the string of scandals continued. After a day of mounting pressure in January that included prisoners flinging bodily fluids at guards, officers violently eliminated a number of girls from their cells throughout a midnight raid. One lady was punched within the face 28 occasions, the state’s legal professional basic mentioned.

On Monday, in a surprising declaration that the issues had been past restore, Gov. Philip D. Murphy introduced that the jail, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, could be completely closed.

The governor’s determination comes as states and cities across the nation are reckoning with violence and abuse behind bars, and as officers are starting to heed calls to rethink incarceration.

In New York City, there are plans to close down the infamous Rikers Island jail advanced and substitute it with smaller, community-based lockups. Other states, together with California, Connecticut and Missouri, have moved to shut services amid a decline within the jail inhabitants tied to decreased crime charges and an emphasis on drug remedy as a substitute of incarceration for some offenses.

After the violent in a single day raid on Jan. 11, New Jersey suspended 34 jail workers members, and later charged 10 with crimes starting from assault to official misconduct.

The shutdown is predicted to take years, and it’s unclear the place the 384 girls housed on the jail in western New Jersey would go.

Groups that work with prisoners appeared divided on the plan to shut Edna Mahan, with some hailing it as a possibility to additional cut back the inhabitants of girls behind bars, whereas others apprehensive concerning the upheaval the transfer may trigger.

Women at Edna Mahan had been already reeling from the January assault, and Mr. Murphy’s announcement follows greater than a yr of extraordinary Covid-19-related restrictions. Visitors had been barred, and prisoners lived in worry of contracting the virus, which raced unchecked by way of most of the nation’s massive, crowded jail services.

New Jersey launched 1000’s of inmates from its jails and prisons to attempt to sluggish the unfold, but a New York Times database discovered that 31 of each 100 prisoners ultimately contracted the virus, almost 3 times the statewide price of an infection.

Bonnie Kerness, a program director with the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch, mentioned Mr. Murphy ought to have allowed lawmakers and advocates time to judge suggestions outlined in a state-funded report that was additionally launched on Monday earlier than making the sweeping closure announcement.

“Wouldn’t it be more logical to punish the abusers and continue the work on reform of the organizational culture?” mentioned Ms. Kerness, who’s in common communication with girls on the facility.

“The beatings were a condition of confinement having nothing to do with the physical structure,” she added.

Jeanne LoCicero, authorized director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, mentioned the shutdown was an incomplete answer. “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 mentioned.

The variety of girls housed at Edna Mahan, a sprawling facility in Hunterdon County that first opened in 1913 and may home greater than 700 folks, has been declining, monitoring a nationwide pattern. In June, it housed the 384 nonviolent and violent offenders in three compounds.

Edna Mahan could be the third jail to shut in New Jersey in a number of years, and Mr. Murphy, a Democrat who’s working for re-election, mentioned the ladies could be relocated to a brand new jail 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, mentioned he was blindsided by the announcement. Mr. Sullivan mentioned the choice seemed to be aimed toward distracting from pay-disparity and recruitment issues specified by the report launched on Monday.

“I think it’s an overreach — more of a feel-good kind of maneuver rather than a fix-the-problem reaction,” Mr. Sullivan mentioned.

Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a nationwide felony justice reform group primarily based in Washington, mentioned the choice matched the targets of nationwide efforts targeted on decreasing the variety of feminine prisoners nationwide and relocating those that are sentenced to jail to be nearer to their households.

“There should be a priority to keep people close to home,” Ms. Porter mentioned.

Any proposal to construct a jail is prone to face fierce opposition, as has occurred in Massachusetts and Texas, the place proponents of lowering incarceration have fought towards the development of latest lockups.

And in New York, a number of candidates within the upcoming mayoral election have attacked the transfer to exchange Rikers Island, leaving the plan’s future unsure.

Mr. Murphy has ignored a drumbeat of criticism by legislators who’ve demanded that he fireplace his corrections commissioner, Marcus O. Hicks, in response to the Jan. 11 melee. The Justice Department report discovered pervasive sexual abuse at Edna Mahan and referred to as for sweeping adjustments to handle “systemic failures.”

Women had been often sexually assaulted by guards and typically compelled to interact in intercourse acts with different prisoners whereas workers members seemed on, the report, issued in April 2020, discovered. Several guards had been convicted in 2018 and 2019 of sexually assaulting girls, however the issue endured.

The report ordered New Jersey to implement reforms that ranged from including feminine workers members and cameras to eradicating defunct, empty services the place a number of the abuse occurred.

In response, state correction officers made some staffing adjustments and added extra stationary and body-worn cameras. The state employed an advocate for victims of sexual assault, Helena Tomé, as a liaison to the ladies within the state’s care.

The corrections division additionally employed a personal guide, the Moss Group, weeks after the January cell extractions, and Mr. Murphy commissioned the state’s former comptroller, Matt Boxer, to conduct a personal investigation because the state’s legal professional basic pursued felony fees towards officers.

Mr. Boxer’s report, launched on Monday, documented weeks of pressure earlier than 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 mentioned, “abused their power to send a message that they were in charge.”

He mentioned he had concluded that “the only path forward is to responsibly close the facility.”

Within hours of Mr. Murphy’s announcement, two state senators mentioned the event supplied a welcome alternative to rethink the place and why girls are imprisoned.

“As we plan for the future,” mentioned 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.”