Legislative Package Prompted by Allegations of Systemic Sexual Abuse & Civil Rights Violations at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility
(TRENTON) – A five-bill legislative package sponsored by Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Yvonne Lopez to address sexual misconduct and abuse against female prisoners by correctional staff was released Monday by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.
The legislative package is in response to an ongoing criminal probe at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. In the last two years, eight prison employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. Last month, a former senior officer at the prison was convicted of counts including sexual assault, criminal sexual contact and official misconduct.
“The allegations of sexual abuse against female inmates are repugnant. These women did not forfeit their humanity or civil rights when they were imprisoned,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “It is evident that reform is needed to protect inmates, and prevent the abuse of power and culture of lawlessness that seems to have permeated the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.”
“The claims of systemic abuse at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility are troubling not only because of the nature of the abuse, but because they were an open secret for so long,” said Lopez (D-Middlesex). “These women did not deserve this. These reforms will help provide safeguards to prevent abuse and disrupt the culture of silence that allowed these heinous acts to go unchecked.”
The first bill (A-4086), sponsored by Vainieri Huttle and Lopez, would require the Commissioner of Corrections to institute a mandatory annual in-service training program of at least 40 hours for each correctional police officer in every state correctional facility.
Of these 40 hours of training, at least eight hours would have to focus on: sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment prevention as required pursuant to the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act; non-fraternization and undue familiarity; and conditioning and manipulation awareness. The remaining training hours would be dedicated to topics chosen by the training department of each facility from a list of approved courses developed by the commissioner.
The non-fraternization training must include prohibitions on officers engaging in specific activities with inmates, their family members or close associates for 90 days after their release.
The second bill (A-4087), sponsored by Vainieri Huttle, would require state correctional facility employees to report inmate abuse and establish a reporting and investigation program.
Specifically, under the bill, an employee of a state correctional facility who has reasonable cause to suspect or believe that an inmate is being or has been abused by a fellow employee would be obligated to report that information to a person designated by the Commissioner of Corrections.
The third bill (A-4090), sponsored by Vainieri Huttle, would require the Commissioner of Corrections to establish a policy limiting cross gender searches and surveillance in state correctional facilities. At the minimum, the policy must:
· require a strip or body cavity search of an inmate to be conducted by an officer of the same gender who is specially trained to conduct these searches;
· authorize an exception to this requirement only in cases of an emergency or other extraordinary or unforeseen circumstances;
· require a non-security employee to conduct the search if a facility does not have adequate correctional police officers of the same gender as the inmate population;
· require the strip or body cavity search to conform with hygienic procedures and professional practices;
· prohibit correctional police officers from viewing inmates of the opposite gender who are nude or performing bodily functions except in an emergency or other extraordinary or unforeseen circumstances;
· require a facility, when possible, to install privacy panels in shower and toilet areas;
· require a verbal announcement be made when correctional police officers or other employees of the opposite gender are in an area of the facility; and
· when necessary to determine a transgender inmate’s genital status, require the examination of the inmate to be done in a private setting by a medical practitioner.
The fourth bill (A-4091), sponsored by Vainieri Huttle and Lopez, would require the State Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy to ensure the rights of female inmates who are the crime victims.
Specifically, the bill would require the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy, in consultation with the Commissioner of Corrections, to promulgate standards to ensure that the rights of female crime victims incarcerated in state correctional facilities are enforced. The standards must include a requirement that unannounced visits be made to the facilities housing female inmates, currently the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, and random surveys be conducted to identify inmates who are victims of sexual assault or sexual misconduct. An inmate who is the victim of sexual assault or misconduct must be informed of, and upon request, be provided services offered by the office.
Under this bill, the office would attempt to identify and assist inmates in Edna Mahan who may have been victims of sexual assault or abuse, but who may not report the sexual abuse for fear of retaliation by correctional police officers or other Department of Corrections (DOC) staff.
The last measure (AJR-134), sponsored by Vainieri Huttle and Lopez, would establish the “Commission to Protect Inmates in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women from Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.” The 17-member commission would be charged with examining issues relating to sexual misconduct convictions, pending criminal charges, and civil allegations by Edna Mahan inmates of sexual assault, sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment against correctional police officers, other staff members, contractors, and volunteers working in the facility.
The commission would have to issue a preliminary report of its findings and recommendations six months from the commission’s organizational meeting and a final report the governor and the Legislature, including legislative proposals, within one year of the meeting.
“Many of the women who were subjected to this abuse were silenced with threats of disciplinary action. They were seen as easy prey by individuals who knew their power and used it against them. Sadly, the problem was ignored and allowed to fester,” said Lopez. “No more. We are sending a clear message with these bills that this criminal behavior will not be tolerated.”
“It is shameful that this behavior was so rampant and that no one with the power to do something did anything about it,” said Vainieri Huttle. “We need to make sure that employees are properly trained on inappropriate interactions with inmates. We need to make sure that all abuse allegations are reported to the appropriate authorities, and when a claim is substantiated, that proper action against the perpetrator is taken. In a civil society, we should not expect anything less”