NJ Prison Reform Explained

Recently-passed bill package addresses widespread abuse at the state’s only women’s prison

On Thursday, the New Jersey State Assembly approved a package of five bills that propose significant changes to the state’s correctional system in light of the recently uncovered abuse of prisoners at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in January.

Bergen County Jail, Hackensack, NJ, Saturday, January, 2nd, 2021. (Photo: Julian Leshay)

The set of bills mandate the use body cameras for corrections officers, require prisons to overhaul and improve their security systems, establish a confidential system for inmates to report abuse, prohibit retaliation from corrections officers against prisoners who report abuse, and require special training for corrections officers who conduct sexual assault investigations.

Lawmakers seem eager to demonstrate their commitment to rectifying the abusive environment at Edna Mahan. Prior to its passage on the Assembly floor on Thursday, the prison reform bill package rapidly advanced through the Assembly Judiciary committee on Tuesday, a step in the legislative process that can sometimes take several weeks. The bill package still needs to pass the Senate and then be signed into law by Governor Murphy.

Prisoners and advocates have criticized the women’s prison for its inhumane conditions and behaviors of corrections officers for decades. In 2020, the Department of Justice found that conditions at Edna Mahan may violate the constitutional rights of incarcerated women. The Department found examples of physical abuse, sexual coercion, and demeaning and derogatory language from corrections officers.

According to Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, “Our investigation found reasonable cause to conclude that women prisoners at Edna Mahan are at substantial risk of sexual abuse by staff because systemic deficiencies discourage prisoners from reporting sexual abuse and allow sexual abuse to occur undetected and undeterred.”

Last month, the state of New Jersey reached a $21 million dollar settlement with women formerly incarcerated at Edna Mahan for abuse and mistreatment. This settlement inculcated over 20 different lawsuits brought against the Department of Corrections but didn’t include the latest and most widely publicized example of abuse that spurred the quick passage of the prison reform bill package.

In January, two Edna Mahan inmates were forcibly removed from their cells and physically abused, resulting in concussions and visual facial injuries. One inmate was punched over 25 times and pepper sprayed, despite not resisting the officers’ commands. At least 10 corrections officers and supervisors have been charged with abuse and 20 others have been suspended.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections announced in February they contracted a prison consulting firm, the Moss Group, to help implement systemic changes to their prisons. This costly consultation will cost the taxpayers of New Jersey $1.3 million in fees. The choice to spend millions in consultation fees to an outsider consulting firm is an interesting one to say the least when community organizations, like New Jersey Prison Watch, have been calling for reform for years.

While the prison reform bill package offers some promising improvements for the New Jersey correctional system, it is often quite difficult to change a deeply-rooted culture of abuse and coercion overnight.

While some argue that body cameras are an effective way to hold police and corrections officers accountable for mistreatment, there are countless examples of video-documented police brutality against Black Americans that didn’t lead to significant consequences or convictions.

Similarly, prohibiting official retaliation from corrections officers against inmates may not address the seemingly passive and unprovable forms that retaliation takes, like ‘random’ searches and ‘losing’ mail for inmates.

The prison reform package feels like a knee-jerk reaction to a scandal that was decades in the making. Although it is refreshing to see the abusive environment of Edna Mahan addressed by prominent New Jersey lawmakers, it’s easy to see this package as a form of political cover, rather than an earnest attempt to transform the criminal justice system.

The five bills won’t address the root causes of mass incarceration, over-policing of minority neighborhoods, or the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead, the prison reform package will facilitate the flow of even more taxpayer dollars into the already-bloated corrections and prison budgets. Every dollar that is allotted towards ineffectual training for corrections officers could have paid for school lunches, public works projects, and air pollution regulations.

Prison reform is an intersectional issue. Black and brown individuals from poor communities are incarcerated at disproportionate rates. Women and trans prisoners are at a unique risk for sexual assault and abuse. While the prison reform package sheds light upon the exceptional instances of prisoner mistreatment at Edna Mahan, the bills ignore how prisons themselves are abusive and psychologically traumatizing institutions that need to be fundamentally transformed.

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