On the heels of 22 lawsuits against the state of New Jersey for alleged sexual abuses and physical assault at a woman’s prison, officials announced they are shutting down the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.
On June 7, Gov. Phil Murphy made the announcement simultaneously with the release of the report of the Lowenstein Sandler Law Firm about the facility. The report stemmed from the investigations into the prison’s cell extraction culture and the long history of inmate sexual abuse allegations.
The 108-year-old prison was put the public limelight on Feb. 4 when the New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal disclosed three correctional officers, two of whom were supervisors, charged with misconduct and filing a false report following the violent attack on inmates at the facility.
One attack included an inmate who was punched in the face 28 times.
The chaos started from the Restorative Housing Unit in January, where inmates who had violated prison policies were kept.A fight ensued between two women rivals after officers placed both women in the same cell, despite objections from the inmates. The situation escalated further when another inmate got angry that her cell was searched without her around and she started throwing food and fluids at officers. As a result, many of the inmates did not receive their dinner and medications.
Armed officers dressed in full protective riot gears removed some of the women from their cells, breached the unit and proceeded to use excessive force to subdue the inmates. In particular was Officer Luis A. Garcia, who was said to have punched one of the inmates dozens of times in the face. He was charged with assault.
Grewal stated further Garcia filed a false report to cover his tracks. His report justified using brutal force in self-defense because the inmate had punched him in his abdomen. Video evidence confirmed a contrary account. It showed Garcia punched the inmate while she was facing the wall without provocation.
Murphy stated individuals in state prison custody deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. He referenced the report, highlighting excessive force by all officers involved directly or indirectly will not be tolerated.
The report also described the abuse officers faced when splashed with unknown and bodily fluids by inmates, prompting extraction from cells to retrieve contrabands. Furthermore, the report indicated aggrieved officers were upset that inmates committing such atrocities on officers were not being criminally charged. Hence, union officers believed things reached a boiling point coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic challenges.
The brazen decision by the governor to shut down the prison drew backlash from both political adversaries and former inmates of the institution.
Republican State Sen. Kristin Corrado of Passaic County expressed concerns about the closure of the facility, and the decision solely focused on location change rather than addressing the root cause of the problems that plagued the institution for years.
“It’s unclear how closing the facility at taxpayer expense will remedy the leadership concerns that will persist regardless of where the inmates are located. The building didn’t fail these women. The Murphy administration did,” Corrado said, according to NJ.com.
Nafeesah A. Goldsmith, chair of New Jersey Prison Justice Watch, and a former inmate of the facility for nearly 13 years, agreed with the republican state senator. Though she had not been against the facility's closure, Goldsmith also wondered if the issue of transferring inmates to other facilities is copping out and passing the buck to others.
"You've got to change the culture. Not a change of scenery," Goldsmith said, according to NPR.
The New Jersey Department of Corrections agreed to pay more than $21 million to settle civil lawsuits against the state over sexual abuse allegations. Shutting down its only women’s prison clearly indicates the state had considered the facility a liability and has had enough.