Garnering far less attention and, frankly, far less sympathy than the Hollywood and political headlines, there are the female victims trapped in the prison system. It has been over two years since a class action complaint was filed on behalf of thousands of potential female class members against the New Jersey Department of Corrections (“NJDOC”), over the intolerable conditions at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women (“EMCFW”), New Jersey’s only women’s prison.
There is little tenable argument as to the well-documented, pervasive hostile and discriminatory environment affecting the vulnerable female prisoner population at EMCFW. Notwithstanding, the NJDOC has successfully argued in the trial court that, technically, the class of prisoners at EMCFW somehow would not be able to prove that they were the subject of discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-12 et seq., (the “LAD”). This has effectively tied the plaintiffs up in an appeal, which is now set to be heard in May.
The plaintiffs argue that this is precisely the type of case that the LAD was meant to address. The stated goal of the LAD, the first state anti-discrimination statute ever enacted, is nothing short of leading the nation in protecting the civil rights of each and every member of New Jersey society. It is difficult to think of a more vulnerable group deserving of protection under the LAD, than incarcerated women. Here, there is no reasonable dispute that the system meant to protect these women is inexorably broken, leading to an inescapable hostile environment of discrimination. The plaintiffs rightfully contend that, if nothing else, the LAD was certainly meant to apply to the women trapped in this environment.
Even while the appeal has been pending, the New Jersey legislature has made preliminary findings pursuant to a Joint Resolution creating a commission to study sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment in the state’s correctional facilities See 2018 Bill Text NJ S.J.R. 74. Again, as detailed in the plaintiffs’ complaint, this is all further set against the backdrop of decades of unchecked examples of rampant abuse of prisoners, indictment and conviction of numerous prison employees, and the reportedly related replacement of NJDOC’s Commissioner. It is hard to imagine that such an environment of discrimination and blatant sexual assault would have been permitted to exist, largely ignored, if EMCFW were a movie studio, a political campaign, a workplace or a school.
Even more recently, an investigation by the United States Department of Justice just confirmed what everyone has basically known all along. Some of the less graphic of those findings include:
- Sexual abuse of women prisoners by Edna Mahan correction officers and staff is severe and prevalent throughout the prison. A “culture of acceptance” of sexual abuse has persisted for many years and continues to the present. As observed by one state court in 2018, this “pervasive culture” has enabled Edna Mahan staff to abuse their authority by “preying on vulnerable women . . . for sexual gratification.”
- The incidents of sexual abuse follow similar patterns where officers and staff sexually assault and harass women who are vulnerable to sexual abuse and fear retaliation, violence, deprivation of privileges, or endure sexual abuse in exchange for food, medication, or contraband, in violation of the prisoners’ constitutional rights.
- During a period dating from October 2016 to April 2019 (a full year after we notified NJDOC of our investigation), seven Edna Mahan correction officers and one civilian employee were arrested, indicted, convicted, or pled guilty to charges related to sexual abuse of the prisoners they were assigned to supervise. Most of the incidents involve senior officers, who had worked at Edna Mahan for many years, and multiple victims. The Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office remains active pursuing these and other matters related to Edna Mahan.
- In addition to the seven correction officers and the civilian staff member who were criminally charged, NJDOC has fired or indefinitely suspended several other Edna Mahan employees since 2010 as a result of sexual abuse allegations. Others were permitted to resign.
- Officials at NJDOC and Edna Mahan have been on notice of incidents of staff sexual abuse of prisoners for years and have failed to adequately address the deficiencies that enabled the abuse to occur. By disregarding the obvious risks to prisoner safety, officials at Edna Mahan evinced a deliberate indifference to prisoners’ constitutional rights.
- While the criminal indictments of eight Edna Mahan staff between May 2016 and April 2019 focused attention on sexual abuse at Edna Mahan, the problems have existed for many years. In the 1990s and 2000s, at least eight other correction officers and other Edna Mahan staff members were charged with crimes relating to sexual abuse.
Despite all of this, the plaintiffs will doubtless continue to be denied their most basic rights in an unspeakably hostile environment, at least for the near future. Also doubtless is the fact that relatively little attention will be paid to one of our most desperate and at risk populations. Unfortunately, #MeToo is apparently not their movement.