Edna Mahan needs even more oversight

New Jersey is facing a human rights crisis in our correctional facilities. It should go without saying that rape and physical abuse should not be part of the penalties of our criminal justice system. Nonetheless, New Jersey’s only women’s prison, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, harbors a pervasive culture of toxicity and abuse.

Last month, dozens of corrections officers at Edna Mahan were suspended after allegations surfaced that they had severely beaten several women. One inmate was beaten so badly she suffered a broken eye socket, another inmate, a transgender woman, is now confined to a wheelchair.

Not just one officer was found to have engaged in abuse, but three officers have been criminally charged after the beating at the prison and roughly 30 other officers have been tied to the inhumane treatment of female inmates.

As the investigation into the incident continues, so many questions remain. Just six months ago, I contacted the Department of Corrections to convey concerns about a specific officer at Edna Mahan. Why is this same officer now making headlines for leading an attack on inmates?

New Jersey only has one women’s prison, why is it that instead of leading the nation in best practices for ensuring dignity and humane treatment, the state has instead been the subject of investigations from the U.S. Department of Justice?

Together with my colleagues, Senator Linda Greenstein and Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, we began the important process of transforming our state’s correctional system.

Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation I sponsored requiring correctional officers to undergo sexual harassment training, as well as legislation to require the state’s correctional facilities to report and investigate instances of abuse. Governor Murphy also signed a bill I sponsored that establishes a commission to study abuse at Edna Mahan.

These laws are a start but, as we learned last month, the system still requires a great deal of oversight and overhaul.

Now, I am calling on the legislature to move forward with a package of legislation that I am sponsoring alongside Senator Greenstein.

Included in this six-bill package is legislation to require the Department of Corrections to install security cameras at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility (A4780), as well as legislation to impose requirements on the Department of Correction’s Special Investigations Division during the process of conducting sexual abuse investigations (A4781), this legislation will improve the manner and efficiency in which the DOC is conducting these critical investigations.

I am also calling on the legislature to move forward with legislation (A5039) sponsored by my colleague Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, which would require correctional officers to wear body cameras.

For years, I have listened to the stories of women who endured abuse and neglect at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. New Jersey has the chance to say unequivocally that we stand up for human rights, New Jersey has the opportunity to become a leader in corrections reform.

Let us listen to and believe survivors when they come forward with their stories and let us create a system that seeks to rehabilitate individuals instead of inflicting additional trauma.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle represents New Jersey’s 37th Legislative District in Bergen County.