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Public outcry and demands for justice grow after women speak out against abuse at NJ prison

Earlier this year, women incarcerated at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in New Jersey courageously came forward to speak out against brutal beatings by officers. In the months since, public pressure and demands for justice and accountability have been building—further exposing a long history of abuse at the women’s prison.

In January, women incarcerated at the facility shared their stories in letters to Bonnie Kerness, who directs AFSC’s Prison Watch Program in New Jersey. Bonnie has monitored and worked to end human rights abuses in prisons for decades, working with a team of volunteers to answer thousands of letters each year. She helped the women make their stories public by sharing their letters with the governor, legislators, advocates, and the media.

"Torture in New Jersey prisons and jails has escalated, cruelty happens with impunity, and it appears that no one is accountable,” Bonnie says. “We must change the culture that not only permits such abuse but accepts it.”

The reports of these beatings came less than a year after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on sexual abuse by officers at the same facility and criticized the prison system's response.

The bravery of these women has had a tremendous impact. Since the women spoke out, at least two investigations have been launched, and more than 30 staff have been placed on leave. Eight corrections staff have been charged, facing allegations of assaulting the women and trying to cover up the abuse.

The Corrections Department ombudsman resigned in early April after New Jersey Assembly members held an eight-hour hearing as part of one investigation. And several lawmakers are now calling for the resignation of the state’s top corrections official and other steps to protect women at the prison.

Amid public outcry after these most recent reports of abuse, the Department of Corrections announced on April 7 that it had reached a nearly $21 million settlement agreement to resolve 22 civil lawsuits brought by women who had been sexually abused at the prison since 2014. It also announced it had struck an agreement on a consent decree with the Department of Justice.

Much more work must be done to protect the lives, health, and rights of all women at Edna Mahon Correctional Facility, Bonnie says. These women, their families, advocates, and other community organizations are pushing forward in calling for justice and accountability, and we expect to see more progress in the months ahead.

“This is the beginning of our efforts towards real social and cultural change in the women’s prisons and in New Jersey prisons, in general,” Bonnie says. “We anticipate hearings, tours which include legislators and those with lived experience guiding them, and finally having a Department of Corrections that adheres to laws passed by New Jersey legislators.”

 

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