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Vainieri Huttle, Lopez & Timberlake Bills to Combat Inmate Abuse in Light of Misconduct Allegations at NJ’s Only Women’s Prison Now Law

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

Addressing systemic sexual abuse in New Jersey prisons, three measures sponsored by Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Yvonne Lopez and Britnee N. Timberlake to set guidelines for in-service training of correctional police officers, establish reporting mechanisms and implement policies to limit cross gender searches were signed into law by the Governor on Tuesday.

The measures, now law, are a response to the ongoing criminal probe at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. In recent years, eight prison employees have been charged with sexually abusing inmates. In 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 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 of the measures (A-4086), now law, requires the Commissioner of Corrections to institute a mandatory annual in-service training program of at least 20 hours for each correctional police officer in every state correctional facility.

Of the 20 hours of training, at least four hours will 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 will 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.

Also signed into law is legislation (A-4087) requiring state correctional facilities to establish a reporting and investigation program under which employees will be required to report inmate abuse.

Specifically, the law provides that an employee of a state correctional facility with reasonable cause to suspect or believe an inmate is being, or has been abused, by a fellow employee will be obligated to report that information to a person designated by the Commissioner of Corrections.

The final measure (A-4090), now law, requires the Commissioner of Corrections to establish a policy limiting cross gender searches and surveillance in state correctional facilities. At the minimum, it provides that 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;
  • 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;
  • prohibit a correctional police officer or non-security employee from conducting a strip search on an inmate solely for the purpose of determining the inmate’s biological sex or gender;
  • prohibit lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) inmates from being subject to a more invasive strip or body cavity search than non-LGBTQ inmates; in the event an additional search is necessary, require the correctional police officer or nonsecurity employee to obtain supervisor approval;
  • require that a transgender inmate be permitted to indicate a preference for the gender of the correctional police officer or nonsecurity employee who will perform the strip or body cavity search on the inmate; and
  • require a transgender inmate who chooses to have a cross gender search conducted to sign a cross gender search preference form.

“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 these laws we are creating a system for greater accountability.”