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Edna Mahan, superintendent of a state women's prison in Clinton, New Jersey. (Photo: M.Q. Hawkes.)

Trailblazer: Edna Mahan

Superintendent of N.J. women’s prison for 40 years

By David Wildstein, February 09 2021 6:06 pm

A state women’s prison that has become the center of an emerging scandal bears the name of a nationally renowned penologist know for massive reforms at what was once known as the Clinton Farms State Reformatory for Women.

Edna Mahan was just 28-years-old and a recent graduate of a Harvard Law School program on juvenile delinquency when Gov. A. Harry Moore’s administration hired as the nation’s youngest prison superintendent in 1928.

In the 1950s, Mahan approved participation in a study to trace the hereditary resistance of the polio virus on infants born to mothers at the prison she ran.  The babies were fed live polio virus in their bottles. Nearly three dozen inmates participated in the study, according to news reports at the time.

Considered a giant in a male-dominated world of prisons, Mahan – pronounced Mann – led the women’s prison for 40 years before her death in 1968 in a career that spanned eight New Jersey governors.

She began her career in corrections after her graduate from the University of California when she worked as several prisons in the Los Angeles area.

After Mahan’s death, the state named her protégé, Marilyn Davenport, as the superintendent.

While Mahan’s legacy earned her immortality when the New Jersey Legislature voted to name the facility after her in 1987, reviews of Mahan were not entirely kind.

After the escape of cop killer Joanne Chesimard brought renewed interest in the Clinton prison Mahan ran, incarcerated Black woman complained that they didn’t get the same educational opportunities as white prisoners.

Mahan is buried behind a chapel on the prison grounds that was constructed during her tenure.

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