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)

Forty abducted women prisoners haunt New Jersey

 

In March 2007, forty women were abducted.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections is made up of thirteen centers, facilities and prisons. The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, EMCF or EMCFW, is the only women’s prison in the state of New Jersey. The New Jersey State Prison, NJSP, is a men’s maximum-security prison.

These two prisons are night-and-day different. EMCFW has programs for survivors of domestic violence, parenting skills programs, and family unity programs, which include greater opportunity for family visits and contacts. EMCFW offers free phone calls to family members. A phone call from NJSP costs $25. Before March 2007, the difference between the two prisons was clear and stark. And then night and day were one:

In March 2007, approximately forty women, the majority of whom were classified as medium-security prisoners, had excellent disciplinary records, and/or held paraprofessional job assignments for months or years while at EMCF, were abruptly transferred to a maximum-security housing unit in NJSP. No notices, hearings, or other procedures preceded these transfers. …

“The mass transfers of women occurred on two separate occasions. On each occasion, women held at EMCF were locked in their cells without explanation. A convoy of trucks arrived and guards in full riot gear carrying batons, mace, and other weapons descended on the women’s quarters and took women from their rooms. Each woman was taken to a separate room and stripped naked while guards, including male guards, observed her and filmed her with a video camera. When the strip searches were complete, the women were handcuffed and shackled, then loaded onto a bus and taken to NJSP.

“During these chaotic and terrifying transfers, women panicked in their cells and wept hysterically. Because many of the women held at EMCF have experienced sexual and physical abuse by men prior to and in some cases during their incarceration, they were extremely frightened by the procedures employed during the transfers and the prospect of transfer to a men’s prison. Nursing and psychiatric staff had to be called to attend to the panic-stricken women, and many women were medicated or received increased dosages of medication. NJDOC has informed the women that their placement in NJSP is permanent.”

The conditions in the New Jersey State Prison were bad for men, and worse for women. The women were confined to their housing units and prohibited from moving about the prison. Their cell windows were painted over, leaving them in perpetual semi-darkness.

The women were denied psychiatric counseling and medication in their unit. If they requested psychiatric care, they were threatened with, and sometimes sent to, “Unit 1GG”, a “stabilization unit” famous for its degree of filth, danger and degradation. Women were denied access to adequate medical care. Medical examinations, such as they were, were conducted in the open area of the housing unit, in the presence of guards, including male guards.

Women were denied legal access, especially access to the prison’s library. Women were denied access to educational programs. They couldn’t get decent work, couldn’t exercise, and couldn’t take care of their personal hygiene. And throughout, women were denied any privacy.

The women found themselves in practical lockdown and almost complete isolation.

Why? What had these women done to deserve this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Forty women were treated, dragged about, as forty sacks of nothing.

Kathleen Jones, Sylvia Flynn, Helen Ewell and Lakesha Jones had been model prisoners. Through the ACLU, these four women sued the State “on behalf of themselves and all individuals similarly situated.” They charged the State with “violations of their due process and equal protection rights, their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and their right to privacy.” They protested the “restrictive, inhumane, and physically and psychologically damaging conditions”. Finally they noted, “The Department’s ill-considered measure is also symptomatic of its general failure to plan for the women in its custody.”

In the first week of September 2008, nine months later, the forty women were returned to the not great conditions of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. Then, for another year and a half, the women fought to make the State accountable for its actions. Last week, the women won. It was a victory “for civil rights, justice and common sense.”

What happened in New Jersey? The State now says EMCFW was overcrowded, and so it moved 40 women. What system of reason moves 40 women model prisoners into an all male supermax holding 1800 some prisoners? There were other prisons in the state, and there were other options. Model women prisoners could have been given early release. No one sought an alternative, because women prisoners counted for and as nothing.

There was no mass transfer in March of 2007. There was abduction. In the middle of the night, groups of men, armed to the teeth, faces covered, rounded up forty unarmed women. The women were stripped naked, prodded, shackled, and carted off to parts unknown, where they were then abused. What is that called? Call it terrorism.

Kathleen Jones and daughter

Sylvia Flynn

 

(Photo Credit: Jerry McCrea/Star-Ledger) (Photo Credit: ACLU)