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Vainieri Huttle, Lopez & Timberlake Bill to Combat Inmate Abuse at NJ’s Only Women’s Prison Becomes Law

Measure Prompted by Allegations of Systemic Sexual Abuse & Civil Rights Violations at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility

Setting guidelines to assist victims of sexual assault in New Jersey’s only women’s prison, legislation sponsored by Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Yvonne Lopez and Britnee Timberlake to address sexual misconduct and abuse against female prisoners by correctional staff was signed into law by the Governor on Monday.

The legislation (A-4091), now law, was drafted in response to an ongoing criminal probe at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. Over the last few years, eight prison employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. In November 2018, 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 were 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 still needed to protect inmates, and prevent the abuse of power and culture of lawlessness that seems to have permeated the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. This law begins by ensuring inmates who are victims of abuse have someone to go to and report the abuse.”

“The claims of systemic abuse at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility were troubling not only because of the nature of the abuse, but because they were an open secret for far too long,” said Lopez (D-Middlesex). “These women did not deserve this. This law is one step in a series of safeguards we need to put in place to prevent abuse and disrupt the culture of silence that allowed these heinous acts to go unchecked.”

The law will require the State Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy to ensure the rights of female inmates who are the crime victims.

“The women in custody at Edna Mahan face an imbalance of power every day,” said Timberlake (D-Essex, Passaic). “That makes them extremely vulnerable to those, in this case correctional officers, willing to leverage that power. Sexual violence, no matter the context, is traumatizing and under this law we are creating a system for greater accountability and enhancing support for victims.”

Specifically, this law will 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 law, the office will 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.

It was unanimously approved, 76-0, in the full Assembly on December 16, 2019.