New Jersey built a special hell for women, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women

Nafeesah Goldsmith, lead organizer for NJ Prison Justice Watch, hugs Tiera Piercy-Hollis of Camden at                             a protest outside Edna Mahan Correctional Facility

An ombudsman is an official appointed to investigate complaints against “maladministration” by a central government. By investigating, an ombudsman protects against governmental abuse of power. It’s that simple … unless you’re in New Jersey. On Thursday, April 8, 2021, New Jersey Department of Corrections Ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti testified before New Jersey state legislature’s judiciary and women and children’s committees. On Friday, April 9, 2021, DeBenedetti announced his resignation, effective August 1, 2021. Dan DiBenedetti has been Ombudsman since 2009. In that time, he has not suggested a single policy recommendation concerning Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, the `open secret’ open sore of New Jersey. No one from the Ombudsman’s staff has visited Edna Mahan in over a year. According to current and former residents of Edna Mahan, there’s no point in contacting the office of the Ombudsman, because they no one from that office ever does anything. Again, Dan DiBenedetti has been Ombudsman since 2009. Why did it take the state legislature over a decade to recognize that something was wrong, that women were being abused not only by the prison staff but by the entire State apparatus?

Here are just a few headlines from the past 12 months: “Sexual abuse of inmates at N.J. women’s prison is an ‘open secret,’ federal inquiry finds” (April 14, 2020); “31 Guards Suspended at a Women’s Prison Plagued by Sexual Violence” (January 28, 2021); “NJ corrections dep’t settles for over $20 million with victims of Edna Mahan abuses dating back to 2014” (April 7, 2021). The State settled with survivors of Edna Mahan, but the issue is far from settled. The abuses didn’t start in 2014. Staff sexual abuse of women at Edna Mahan go back at least as far as 1994, when Kevin Brodie was `caught’, fired and prosecuted. Not a year has gone by since without a similar incident. As last year’s Federal inquiry noted, “Current and former prisoners at Edna Mahan described sexual abuse of prisoners by correction officers as an `open secret.’ There is no indication that NJDOC officers took reasonable responses to prevent correction officers and staff from continuing to sexually abuse prisoners at Edna Mahan.” That report was filed April, 2020. Since then, no one inspected Edna Mahan and no one outside the usual suspects asked why there was no inspection. 

On the books, New Jersey’s Department of Corrections Ombudsman actually has quite a bit of power to investigate and prosecute. The Office can force people to testify under oath. But if you have, as New Jersey does, an Ombudsman who came up through the ranks of the Department of Corrections, who views his investigatory powers as a betrayal of his brothers in blue, and if the State legislature is willing to look the other way until it’s forced to look again, then the books don’t much matter. 

Now legislators demand a `clean sweep’: “`Everyone has to go,’ Assemblywomen Aura Dunn, R- Morris, Nancy Muñoz, R- Union, and Assemblymen Christopher DePhillips and Bob Auth, both R- Bergen, said in a joint statement Thursday night. What has to go is Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, and not to be replaced with a `better prison’. The Unites States is a gulag archipelago of women’s prisons, each designed as a special hell, including Julia Tutwiler in Alabama, Lowell Correctional in Florida, the California Institution for WomenHuron Valley in Michigan, Muncy in Pennsylvania, and Edna Mahan in New Jersey. Every one of them is an “open secret”, and every one of them must be shut down, once and for all. Otherwise, at some point, the State legislature will meet, in committee, and discover that the Ombudsman, whose only job is to investigate, has nothing to say about the atrocities we commit by looking the other way.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Picture credit: Keith A. Muccilli / NJ Advance Media)