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Incarcerated women speak out against abuse at NJ prison

In January, women incarcerated at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in New Jersey came forward to speak out against beatings by officers—leading to an investigation with more than 30 staff placed on leave.

These courageous women shared with their family members and advocates, including AFSC staff, that at least three women had been severely beaten by officers. One woman has a broken eye socket, and another is now in a wheelchair.

These reported abuses come less than a year after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on sexual abuse by officers at the prison and criticized the prison system's response.

Bonnie Kerness, program director of AFSC's Prison Watch Program in New Jersey, provided support to the women in bringing their stories to light by sharing their letters along with AFSC commentary with the governor, state legislators, advocates, and media. For decades, the Prison Watch Program has monitored human rights abuses in federal and state prisons, bringing national and international attention to the need to end isolation and torture as we work toward ending incarceration.

On Jan. 18—after receiving a letter from one incarcerated woman who had witnessed the beating and phone calls from family members who had heard from loved ones inside—Bonnie sent an email to Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, several officials, lawmakers, and the media.

Here's an excerpt from that email:

"In my 40 years as an advocate on behalf of people in prison, I can attest that torture in New Jersey prisons and jails has escalated; that cruelty happens with impunity and that it appears that no one is accountable. This despite the set of legislation passed to ensure the protection of the women in the care of NJ’s imprisonment system; this despite the scathing Department of Justice Report. The Office of the Ombudsman has assured us that investigations are taking place – again. And again, we anticipate the removal of those who committed the violence. Even if this happens, our questions remain the same. How, then, do we change the culture that not only permits such abuse, but accepts it.

Most of you receiving this are people who I have spoken with, written to, testified before, telephoned and implored. Read this woman’s testimony and multiply it by the experience of the thousands of men and women who are helpless to control the cruelty that permeates the Department of Corrections. Jean Ross, myself and members of the NJ Prison Justice Watch Coalition have written, called, met with and alerted everyone we can think of in the state for years. That people being paid by citizen taxes are permitted to conduct this merciless behavior without any oversight is disgraceful. Shame on each of you who are supposed to be where the proverbial “buck” stops. Each of you are guilty for not stopping the unconscionable conditions of confinement in this state which have gone on for decades–with this being one of the most egregious."

The bravery of these women for speaking out has already had an impact. Since these reports of abuse were brought to light, more than 30 officers have been placed on leave and the state attorney general’s office and Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s office have launched an investigation. On Jan. 27, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that he had ordered an independent investigation of the abuses, while several lawmakers have called for hearings and other steps to protect women at the prison.

Read more:
“Dozens suspended at NJ prison after officers are accused of beating women inmates” (NJ.com) 
“NJ launches investigation, 30 officers on leave after abuse allegations at women's prison” (northjersey.com) 
“Phil Murphy orders another investigation of abuse at NJ women's prison” (NJ.com)