No More Cameras, ‘Special Victims Unit’ Arrives at NJ Jails After Edna Mahan Scandals
More than a year after a night of violence at the New Jersey women’s prison led to criminal charges against 15 officers and staff, state officials on Friday outlined a series of reforms passed under the leading a federal observer at the scandal-ridden Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.
“I strongly believe this is the time for a fresh start, both with Edna and across the department,” Acting Commissioner of Corrections Victoria Kuhn said at the town hall meeting. under a consent decree with the US Department of Justice.
A 2020 federal civil rights inquiry found the rampant sexual abuse and exploitation of prisoners by staff to be “an open secret,” threatening the state with civil rights legal action.
Then, while under federal surveillance, a group of officers, led by prison officials, staged a midnight raid on a special housing unit where several women said they had been severely beaten.
Over the next year, more than 400 Edna Mahan staff members were retrained to federal sexual abuse and exploitation standards, Kuhn said.
Officers who deal directly with inmates are now all equipped with body cameras, and as of December the prison was equipped with 355 fixed cameras.
Edna Mahan has a new board and has revamped trauma counseling and other services for the women housed there.
And Kuhn announced that the prison system’s Special Investigations Division, which handles internal investigations inside the walls, is now headed by a former prosecutor who has tried and convicted several officers accused of sexually assaulting inmates.
Kuhn said the moves were part of “lifting the veil of secrecy that has hung over this department, and over Edna, for far too long.”
It marks a change for the administration of Governor Phil Murphy, who previously refused to testify in legislative oversight hearings and blamed prison conditions on his predecessors.
Officials at Friday’s hearing had no new information on when Edna Mahan will be closed, as Murphy promised last June.
“We all want the facility to shut down,” Kuhn said. “It is time to begin a new beginning for those who are accommodated in Edna.
“But we also want to get it right and it will take a bit of time.”
Kuhn, meanwhile, has appointed as assistant commissioner Kelly Daniels, a former assistant prosecutor from Hunterdon County, where she led a sex crimes unit and prosecuted Edna Mahan officers accused of abuse.
Daniels’ first task is to create a “special victims unit” to investigate sexual assaults behind bars, Kuhn said.
Jane Parnell, a former Oregon Corrections official named Edna Mahan’s federal supervisor, said women living there told her investigators they had seen a marked improvement in conditions in recent months.
“Their (expressed) biggest fear of us was, ‘Will these changes last? “” Parnell said, adding that the reforms being implemented must go “beyond the settlement agreement.”
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