Guards Suspended From New Jersey Prison Where Women Are 'Regularly Sexually Assaulted'

An inmate at Edna Mahan participating in the Puppies Behind Bars initiative
An inmate at Edna Mahan participating in the Puppies Behind Bars initiative
Image: Daniel Hulshizer (AP)

In April 2020, the Department of Justice found that “the State of New Jersey, through the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC), fails to keep prisoners at Edna Mahan safe from sexual abuse by staff,” siting more than ten women had been abused by officers and one “civilian employee.” The findings were part of an investigation into Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women located in New Jersey—and almost a full year later, the situation at Edna Mahan has shown no improvement.

The New York Times reports that 31 employees have been suspended from their positions at Edna Mahan after a transgender woman serving a five-year sentence at the facility was “handcuffed and beaten so badly by four guards that ligaments ripped in her knee.” But this latest incident is just one more added to the years of incidents recorded to have taken place in Edna Mahan, which is inexplicably allowed to remain open. The New Jersey AG is currently investigating this particular incident, which officers claim occurred while trying to perform what they call a “forced cell extraction,” the removal of inmates against their will from their respective cells.

Although 31 employees—an administrator, nine supervisors, and 22 officers—were suspended for being linked to the incident, a union representative told the Times it’s unlikely that all of them were personally involved: “Once things start getting figured out, you’re not going to see 22 officers in trouble.” This is based on paperwork that shows several officers reported being hit with feces and urine by inmates in the same cell block where the extraction took place a few weeks prior to the incident. Trimeka Rollins, the mother of the transgender inmate, tells the Times that three women were injured during the extraction. Two of them got medical attention off-site while her daughter was treated by an on-site nurse. She said she and her daughter fear retaliation from the guards who were not suspended and from those who might come back if not convicted of wrongdoing:

Ms. Rollins’s daughter told her the assault was linked to harassment directed toward transgender women.

“There was an argument between an officer and another transgender person,” Ms. Rollins said. “From there, it was the officer making threats. ‘We’re going to take care of you all,’ and stuff like that. The other inmate actually said, ‘If you’re going to do it, come do it.’ And that’s what set it off.”

During the assault, Ms. Rollins said, her daughter was handcuffed and thrown to the ground, where officers wearing boots stomped on her face.

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New Jersey’s governor, Phil Murphy, is aware of the situation at Edna Mahan and said during a Wednesday press conference, “every individual in state custody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and we must always remember that female inmates have long been uniquely vulnerable to abuse” before announcing the investigation into Edna Mahan. However, the atrocities at Edna Mahan are a symptom of the American prison system overall, which is designed to strip human beings of their dignity under the guise of rehabilitation. These indignities, often foisted on women and gender non-conforming prisoners who are deemed less threatening to armed officers, have still, somehow, not yet been enough to trigger a mass overhaul of the prison system.

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DISCUSSION

When a culture of abuse such as this comes to light, it seems to me that the entire staff needs to be replaced en-mass.  I don’t have a solution to how this could be done, but it’s clear that simply replacing those caught isn’t going to solve the problem.  When abuse becomes cultural within an institution the only way to remove the problem is to remove the culture.  You can’t stop it by removing a few individuals.