December 3, 2021

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We Make It Cool

At women’s prison, rape and brutality as Murphy dawdles | Moran

The guards gathered just before midnight on Jan. 11, strapped on their riot gear, and made sure their body cameras were pointed away from the crimes they were about to commit.

In one cell, a woman was dragged out to be strip-searched, with the male guards joining in, breaking every rule. “Why is a man ripping my clothes off?” she screamed. A gang of seven guards kicked her, punched her, and twisted her arm, she told investigators, all while she was handcuffed and carefully hidden from camera view. One officer grabbed her breast, and digitally raped her, she says.

“I’m somebody!” she screamed as they pulled her away.

The official report, signed by two sergeants, claimed she was not injured. But the infirmary found she had a broken arm, which required a cast, along with cuts and bruises all over.

This was the start of a riot that night launched by prison guards at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, acting in our name.

In a neighboring cell, a separate group of guards pounded the face and chest of another inmate, 28 times in all, and ripped open her shirt. She was forced to strip, again with male officers present. At a hospital, doctors later diagnosed a concussion and cervical sprain. In another cell, an inmate cried as she was beaten so badly that her eye socket was fractured.

We should all be ashamed of this, especially Gov. Phil Murphy. Not just because of this horrifying night, described in a 75-page report completed last week by a team led by Matt Boxer, a private attorney and former state comptroller.

We should be ashamed because we knew. We knew the nearly 400 women locked in these cells were routinely beaten and raped by guards. We knew this was not the work of a few bad apples, that this prison can fairly be described as a rape camp. It wasn’t just that night.

The federal government sent investigators to Edna Mahan four years ago, during a period when 10 inmates were sexually assaulted by guards and civilian staff over three years. What they found, after a painstaking investigation, left them horrified.

“Sexual abuse of women prisoners by Edna Mahan correction officers and staff is severe and prevalent throughout the prison,” the Department of Justice concluded in its April 2020 report. “A culture of acceptance of sexual abuse has persisted for many years and continues to the present.”

Note that this rape culture continued to thrive on Murphy’s watch, despite all the warning flares, as we saw in gruesome detail on the night of Jan. 11.

After Boxer issued his report last week, Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks resigned in disgrace, and Murphy announced that he would shut down the prison over the next several years. At the same time, the Department of Justice is poised to send a team to oversee reforms at the prison, having concluded that the state, up to and including the Murphy administration, has been violating the Constitutional rights of the inmates.

“We must now commit ourselves to completely breaking this pattern of misconduct to better serve incarcerated women entrusted to the state’s care,” Murphy said last week.

We have a governor who knows how to say the right thing. But look at his record on Edna Mahan, and the indifference is hard to forgive.

He stuck by Hicks until the end, even after the guard riot, even after the Senate passed a resolution unanimously calling for Hicks to be fired. Boxer’s report shows that Hicks didn’t even know who was in charge at Edna Mahan, a shocking revelation that shows Hicks could not possibly have been engaged in a serious reform effort.

Boxer’s report outlines the measures enacted during the Murphy years, all of them half-hearted and incomplete. The fixed cameras left blind spots all over the prison campus, and the DOJ found that guards knew the spots where they could assault inmates undetected, one of which had a mattress on the floor. Prison officials concluded in 2019 that a total of 634 cameras would be needed. But the rollout has been slow and won’t be finished until September of this year.

Three women have been hired at senior positions at the prison in recent years, but the effort to recruit more women guards has lagged, growing by an average of seven guards per year since 2015. Women guards still make up less than half the total.

After Hicks testified about these efforts at a joint Legislative hearing in April, the governor’s ombudsman for prisons, Dan DiBenedetti, had his turn. He said he found conditions at the prison to be acceptable, confessed that he hadn’t visited in more than a year, and said that his staff of 10, down from a peak of 16, had little time to investigate the 50,000 annual complaints they received from prisoners. He resigned shortly after the hearing.

“Every legislator walked away dumbfounded by the answers we heard that day,” says Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “This was just about the one-year anniversary of the DOJ report that said the house is on fire. And they were offering just piecemeal stuff. Even now the cameras won’t be in place for several more months?”

Murphy ordered this investigation of Edna Mahan on Jan. 27, two days after the Star-Ledger published the first story about the guard riot. But we know now that senior officials in the governor’s office were notified shortly after the riot took place on Jan 11, and that the governor was briefed. So, if his concern was for the safety of the inmates, why didn’t he order the investigation right away? Was it the political embarrassment that moved him? The governor’s office has refused to discuss that.

This is a serious mark on Murphy’s record as governor, a scandal with a much higher human cost than Bridgegate.

“There was no sense of urgency to fix this,” says Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the Legislature’s leading voice on women’s issues. “We have people in peril in an institution where the state of New Jersey is responsible for their care. It just makes me sick to think about it. It is horrendous and mind-blowing, and it went on for too long with no one seriously addressing it. This is a scandal.”

It’s amazing to me that Murphy hasn’t paid a higher political cost for his mistreatment of women, starting with Edna Mahan, but including the gag orders on women who worked for his frat-boy 2017 campaign, and his mistreatment of Katie Brennan, a campaign volunteer who claimed she was raped by a senior staffer on the campaign.

His Republican opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, will try to change that. “The fact that Gov. Murphy and others knew what was happening at Edna Mahan and did nothing to stop it should be a message to all women in New Jersey about who he really is,” he said in a statement Friday.

Closing the prison is an untested idea, and Murphy will need money from the Legislature to pull it off. If the same players are moved to a new setting, with the same culture, then the change starts to look cosmetic, like the Catholic Church moving a pedophile priest to a new diocese. But Edna Mahan is decrepit physically, and its remote location near the Pennsylvania border makes it harder to hire good staff and accommodate visits from family members. Few would lament the demolition of this haunted place.

Meanwhile, Boxer’s report, one hopes, will spark real change. Hicks’ resignation opens the door. Let’s hope the governor finally starts to treat the problem with the urgency it demands.

More: Tom Moran columns

Tom Moran may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.