Vainieri Huttle, Lopez & Timberlake Bill to Tackle Sexual Misconduct in Prisons, Require In-Service Training Clears Committee

Addressing systemic sexual abuse in New Jersey prisons, legislation sponsored by Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Yvonne Lopez and Britnee N. Timberlake to set guidelines for in-service training of correctional police officers was advanced in the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Monday.

The bill (A-4086/S-2532) is one of five pieces of legislation drafted in response to an ongoing criminal probe at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. Over the last few years, eight prison employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. In November 2018, a former senior officer at the prison was convicted of counts including sexual assault, criminal sexual contact and official misconduct.

“The allegations of sexual abuse against female inmates were repugnant. These women did not forfeit their humanity or civil rights when they were imprisoned,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “It is evident that reform is still needed to protect inmates, and prevent the abuse of power and culture of lawlessness that seems to have permeated the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.”

Under the bill, the Commissioner of Corrections would be required to institute a mandatory annual in-service training program of at least 20 hours for each correctional police officer in every state correctional facility.

“The systemic abuse at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility was troubling not only because of the nature of the abuse, but because it was an open secret for far too long,” said Lopez (D-Middlesex). “No woman deserves this abuse. This bill is one step in a series of safeguards we need to put in place to prevent abuse and disrupt the culture of silence that allowed these heinous acts to go unchecked.”

Of the 20 hours of training, at least four hours would have to focus on: sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment prevention as required pursuant to the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act; non-fraternization and undue familiarity; and conditioning and manipulation awareness. The remaining training hours would be dedicated to topics chosen by the training department of each facility from a list of approved courses developed by the commissioner.

“The women in custody at Edna Mahan face an imbalance of power every day,” said Timberlake (D-Essex, Passaic). “That makes them extremely vulnerable to those, in this case correctional officers, willing to leverage that power. Sexual violence, no matter the context, is traumatizing and under this legislation we would create a system for greater accountability.”

The non-fraternization training must include prohibitions on officers engaging in the following activities with inmates, their family members or close associates for 90 days after their release:

  • display favoritism or preferential treatment toward one inmate or group of inmates over another;
  • give gifts, favors, or services beyond those required by the facility;
  • accept for the officer or a family member of the officer any tangible or non-tangible personal reward or other consideration;
  • engage in any business relationship;
  • engage in any non-incidental contact outside the facility;
  • engage in a personal relationship; and
  • require any authorized contact to be conducted in a professional manner.

The bill now goes to the Speaker for further review.