Home>Governor>Murphy to close Edna Mahan after independent report finds numerous breaches

Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. (Photo: NJ Globe file photo).

Murphy to close Edna Mahan after independent report finds numerous breaches

Governor doesn’t say whether Hicks will keep his post

By Nikita Biryukov, June 07 2021 10:43 am

New Jersey’s only women’s prison will be shut down following the completion of an independent report into violent January cell extractions, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.

“After reading the report and its recommendations, I have decided that the only path forward is to responsibly close the facility,” Murphy said. “I look forward to working with our partners in the Legislature to responsibly close down the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women and relocate inmates to a new facility or other facilities.”

The investigative report drafted by former State Comptroller Matt Boxer, released Monday, found multiple discrepancies with reports submitted by corrections personnel, including unsupported claims that only female corrections officers participated in strip searches of inmates.

Their reports also left out injuries. In none case, they claimed that an inmate with a broken arm and visible bruising on her head was uninjured during her cell extraction.

Officers also used pepper spray in violation of Department of Corrections policy. One officer can be heard on video punching an inmate repeatedly for about a minute. Criminal charges filed in relation to the incident say a single officer struck the inmate in the head and neck 28 times.

Video shows the inmate was not given an opportunity to comply with officers’ orders before being pepper sprayed. Officers again filed a false report saying the inmate suffered no injuries, though a medical assessment the following day found numerous cuts, bruises. She also suffered a concussion and cervical sprain.

Multiple inmates were removed from their cell in state of undress in full view of male corrections officers. One inmate reported being groped on her breasts and vagina.

Corrections officials failed to record a third cell extraction that left an inmate so bruised her right eye was swollen completely shut. A medical examination the following day found her orbital wall was fractured.

Boxer’s report found some of the officers involved in the violent cell extractions had a history of prior misconduct. One lieutenant had previously failed to properly record multiple cell extractions. Two other supervisors had a history of off-duty violence.

Another senior official had allegedly shot his off-duty firearm at another motorist while driving. That individual, whom the report does not identify, was responsible for approving one of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility’s use-of-force policies.

All five of the inmates targeted by the violent cell extractions were disciplined for their alleged conduct during the extractions, though Hicks suspended those sanctions once made aware of the charges.

Officers failed to identify themselves by name before conducting cell extractions, as required, and other parts of the cell extractions were not recorded at all, Boxer found.

Portions of Boxer’s reports are redacted so as to not interfere with Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s ongoing criminal investigation, which has already lodged charges against 10 corrections officials.

NJ Advance Media was first to report a series of officer suspensions related to the inmate beatings.

Corrections officials failed to justify the lateness of the cell extractions, which took place on the night of Jan. 11 and into the early morning of Jan. 12. Such third-shift cell extractions are only to be conducted in emergency situations. Current and former administrators at the facility said they would not have authorized the extractions if asked.

The extractions were conducted in response to “splashing” incidents, a practice that involves spraying corrections officials with urine, feces or other liquids, though former Administrator Sarah Davis said she would not have considered splashing justification for emergency cell extractions.

Investigators said no emergency existed, pointing to a two-hour gap between the cell extractions and the last splashing incident.

Corrections officers failed to comply with a series of other regulations on cell extractions. None of the videos show supervisors announcing the date and time of the extractions, naming themselves and others involved or giving the location and reason for the search.

They also failed to provide a mandated briefing including the names of corrections officials involved and the reason for the extraction.

The recordings themselves were frequently obstructed by corrections officers, despite requirements that inmates be visible. The inmate who was punched repeatedly for a minute is not visible during her assault.

Some extractions were not filmed altogether. Video of the inmate who suffered an orbital wall fracture first shows her with visible injuries on her face while she is transported for medical attention. Officers claimed, authorities say falsely, she injured herself, though her extraction does not appear on video.

Hicks told investigators he believed the deficient filming was intentional.

“There were instances where the camera was pointed at the floor, or it wasn’t even on … I don’t think that was coincidental, and it was completely inconsistent with what our policies are,” he told Boxer’s team.

The report also found male corrections officers participated in strip searches in violation of Corrections policy, including in an incident in which officers attempted to violently cut off an inmate’s clothing. In one case, a male officer stuck his fingers inside of an inmate’s vagina, causing bleeding.

The cross-gender strip searches were not reported, and officers filed false reports saying only female officials were involved.

There was also a breakdown in communications over policy requiring the Department of Corrections central office to improve third-shift extractions. That policy was never memorialized in writing.

Even the simultaneous nature of the cell extractions was a departure from existing practice. Corrections officials told investigators, unanimously, that it was extremely unusual for cell extractions to be conducted simultaneously across an entire housing unit.

Such mass searches are allowed under Department of Corrections policy only in the presence of reliable third-party information or staff observations justifying the need. No such justification existed in this instance, investigators said.

At most three inmates were said to be involved in splashing incidents, but 22 inmates were removed from their cells.

Boxer’s team recommended greater oversight of cell extractions and an increased presence of Corrections Ombudsperson personnel during extractions and at the prison more broadly.

They also said state officials should consider closing down the prison or expanding the number of correctional facilities housing only women in the state.

Murphy is taking them up on those recommendations.

“Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women has a long history of abusive incidents predating our Administration, and we must now commit ourselves to completely breaking this pattern of misconduct to better serve incarcerated women entrusted to the State’s care,” he said.

That process will be slow, the governor said, though work on it will begin during this year’s budget negotiations.

Murphy did not say in his statement Monday whether Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks would remain in his post. The independent report does not say he was responsible for the policy breaches at Edna Mahan, though an overwhelming number of legislators have called for him to step down or be removed in relation to the incidents.

At least one lawmakers till wants Hicks gone.

“The abuses and sexual assaults that occurred at Edna Mahan were the result of poor leadership by Governor Murphy and NJDOC Commissioner Hicks and their failure to heed federal warnings or hold abusive staff accountable,” said State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa). “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.”

Others took issue with what they saw as lax oversight of the facility. Among the report’s findings was one that said no one was actually leading the facility following the departure of Administrator Patricia McGill, who left her post on October 29.

Officials, Hicks included, told investigators they believed Associate Administrator Erica Stem had been tapped as Edna Mahan’s acting administrator, though records and Stem’s own testimony show that wasn’t the case.

“This failure to ensure that proper leadership was in place at a women’s prison that has been plagued by a culture of rape and abuse falls directly on Commissioner Hicks. How could this happen nine months after the U.S. Justice Department found that corrections officers routinely violated the civil and constitutional rights of women inmates?” State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) said. “Women inmates should not have to live in fear.”

This article was updated with comment from Corrado at 11:30 a.m. It was updated with comment from Addiego at 3:21 p.m.

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