Rape Is Not a Penalty for Any Crime: The Department of Corrections Must Be Held Accountable

LD34 Senator Nia Gill

MONTCLAIR – In February of 2018, the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee heard testimony concerning allegations of rape and sexual abuse at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. The Department of Corrections declined to appear at the hearing. Women from Edna Mahan testified they were subjected to rapes and sexual assaults by guards. Expert testimony was produced regarding the failure of the corrections system to establish practices and procedures to eliminate rape and sexual assault. At the time of the hearing there were also pending criminal charges against guards with allegations of rape and sexual assault. From October 2016 to November 2019, five Edna Mahan correction officers and one civilian employee were convicted or pled guilty to charges related to sexual abuse of more than 10 women under their watch.

Subsequently, On April 26, 2018, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) notified the State of New Jersey of its intent to conduct an investigation into Edna Mahan.

In April 2020 the DOJ found:

Edna Mahan suffers from a “culture of acceptance” of sexual abuse, which has enabled abuse to persist despite years of notice and efforts towards change at the State level. As noted above, at the conclusion of a full criminal trial of an Edna Mahan correction officer, the state court observed that this “pervasive culture” gives staff the opportunity and audacity to abuse their authority by “preying on vulnerable women . . . for sexual gratification.” Both NJDOC and Edna Mahan have been reactionary to the multiple criminal indictments, civil lawsuits, and press garnered around prior staff sexual abuse of Edna Mahan prisoners. If NJDOC and Edna Mahan do not effectively address the systemic deficiencies that led to the criminal sexual abuse revealed by the staff indictments, practices will continue at Edna Mahan that will likely result in continued sexual abuse of the women incarcerated there.

In response to the findings in the DOJ report, Commissioner Hicks stated that many of the problems at Edna Mahan were “inherited” from the previous administration. The Commissioner and the administration have a longstanding knowledge of the sexual assaults. It is a fact that this administration re-nominated Commissioner Lanigan whose failure of leadership allowed many of the abuses outlined in the report to occur. The renomination of the commissioner was a tacit approval by this administration of his failure of leadership. It is also a fact that the present Commissioner was a chief of staff to the previous Commissioner.

On May 12, 2020, the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee held a second hearing to discuss the findings of the DOJ report. Once again, the Department of Corrections declined to appear at the hearing in order to give a full account to the public concerning the findings and the remedial measures required by the DOJ.

The DOJ found based on the totality of the conditions, practices, and incidents discovered, that conditions at Edna Mahan violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution due to the sexual abuse of prisoners by the facility’s staff and these violations are pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of rights protected by the Eighth Amendment.

In order to make “New Jersey a leading state for survivor-centric policies”, we must protect the human and civil rights of our incarcerated woman. A woman does not lose her value as a human being when incarcerated, nor does she forfeit control over her body. We must immediately address the practices and procedures that allow the pervasive culture of rape and sexual assault to give staff the opportunity and audacity to abuse their authority by preying on vulnerable women for sexual gratification.

Nia Gill is the Senator from the 34th Legislative District.

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