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Testimony on sexual abuse at Edna Mahon Corrections Institution for Women

New Jersey Senate Law and Public Safety Committee Hearing

By Bonnie Kerness, MSW, Program Director, AFSC Prison Watch 

February 22, 2018, State Building, Trenton, NJ

My name is Bonnie Kerness and I am Program Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch in Newark. We have been monitoring and advocating on behalf of men, women and children in New Jersey prisons since the mid 1980’s. One of the ways we do this is by receiving a daily explosion of letters, telephone calls and visits from prisoners, the formerly imprisoned and members of their families. During this extended period, we have always and often heard from women and their families about sexual abuse, racial discrimination, harassment, mental health issues and other conditions of confinement which are not only shameful, but are illegal according to Federal and New Jersey law and Department of Corrections standards and administrative codes. 

The issue of prison rape is so serious a problem nationally that in 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Unfortunately, the “elimination” part of that legislation is only intermittently enforced. The recent outcry and litigation from women in Edna Mahon Correctional Institution reflects what the women in New Jersey jails, immigrant detention facilities, and halfway houses have shared with us for decades - that oppressive power is being used every day in these spaces in unspeakable ways.  

Prisoners tell me that everyone in specific prison units at Clinton knew that certain officers would pursue some of the women relentlessly. Some women give into rape or sexual abuse to get extra food, cellphone use, extra privileges or even sanitary napkins. One women shared that in what is called the Day Room, officers made “you strip down in front of male officers, being forced to expose ourselves before open windows where other officers were watching”. I was told “Even if you had your period you had to drop your pants and your pads.” She described feeling regularly degraded and horrified. 

I had another tell me that her skin crawled when the officers would pat search her saying that, “this is the best part of my day”. I have received testimony that should anyone refuse this abuse, they would be sent to the solitary confinement unit for an undetermined amount of time.  One described seeing young women, 17 or 18 years old, cry when they were sexually fondled in this way. Yet another reported that in Williamson cottage, there is a mattress in the basement. During count, which could last 35 minutes, one young woman was forced to regularly go downstairs with an officer. I was told that, “You cannot report what you are seeing because you risk getting a charge”.  In one particularly disturbing call a woman noted, “that was not part of my sentence to perform oral sex with officers”. I have been repeatedly told by women about their experiences of filing dozens of complaints without a single administrative response.

Sexual violence is also used as a tool to subdue prisoners whom guards see as problems. Many of those “problem” women are placed in maximum security and then assaulted repeatedly, often unable to communicate their abuse to anyone. One woman called us sobbing, telling us she held semen in her mouth, so she could “prove” her humiliation. The women who speak the unspeakable to us are not alone. According to the Department of Corrections website, of the 100 sexual assault reports acknowledged by the Department since 2012, just two (!) have been recognized as having merit. Very often, and we are seeing it right now, even when officers are tried and convicted, they do not have to register as sex offenders as is required by New Jersey’s Megan’s law. The prosecutors, who are in office to uphold the law, permit a plea bargain which includes this illegal non-compliance.

Former US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun has stated: “Prison rape not only threatens the lives of those who fall prey to their aggressors, but it is potentially devastating to the human spirit. Shame, depression, and a shattering loss of self-esteem accompany the perpetual terror the victim thereafter must endure”.  What the Justice was referring to are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress that women often come home with. At AFSC we see the injured human spirit of formerly imprisoned women every day. Whatever is developed out of these Hearings, finding a legislative way to promote health and healing is a crucial priority. Sending people home more damaged than when they come in is the real crime.

The public pays heavily for these institutions without knowing what is happening behind those walls.  This system is authorized only to remove people from society, not torture them. What is happening to our sisters and brothers in prison reflects poorly on our prison system and on us as a society, and exposes whole families and communities to the aftermath of institutional violence. Because these crimes of sexual slavery and violence occur to people in government custody we bear responsibility, right alongside of those who ignore the law. The women prisoners who have spoken out have done so with great courage. Speaking truth to power is fraught with severe consequences.  These women have done so at a time when sisters throughout the country identifying as “Me too!” are calling for a change in the male culture which dominates sexual violence. This outcry in New Jersey is largely comprised of women who are traditionally poor and black and brown. These dynamics feel uncomfortably close to slavery. The voices of the women at Clinton have reached the US Department of Justice. They recently reached out to myself and Jean Ross to help them scrutinize the abuse that women are reporting.

In the case of women in prison, we as a community and you as legislators need to discover where the proverbial “buck” stops. Administrators have a long history of ignoring justifiable complaints, so this becomes a layered issue with an equally layered need for change in current policies and practices. So where does the ultimate accountability lie: is it with a Commissioner of Corrections who sometimes seems to have little knowledge of or even power over the behavior of front-line officers? Is it with the Union that allows and accepts that its membership behaves in a manner completely unacceptable in any profession, let alone in one fraught with unimaginable power over another human being? Is it with the prison administrators who receive the complaints being submitted via the kiosks? Is it with the Superintendent who may then disregard those complaints which reflect poorly on the practices at their institution? Is it the Department of Corrections Special Investigations Division which seems to ignore those cries for assistance? Or has it been, for decades, the responsibility of the Hunterdon County Office of the Prosecutor who has been discounting these calls for help. After monitoring the women’s institution for decades, after receiving letters and hearing accounts of the most devastating nature, I still don’t know the answers. I only know that right now is a time to have this dialogue. You cannot give me a reason for the kinds of testimonies of torture from NJ prisons that come into my office every day. You, as legislators need to give us answers so we can resolve who we are and who we want to be as a society. 

I do not know how you legislate a culture in which the powerful make sanitary napkins and toilet paper currency. How do you legislate cruelty, white supremacy, neglect and sexual misconduct all conducted with impunity in a system hidden from public scrutiny? Despite federal and state legislation, there is no community oversight, although it is badly needed. The public needs accessibility and the right to demand accountability. Because of the daring of the women in Clinton, the bravery of those who have survived and come home, the willing lawyers, the extraordinary media coverage, and Hearings such as this, New Jersey is poised to lead the country in preventing the sexual abuse of girls and women in jails, prisons and juvenile and immigration detention facilities. If you really want to hold Hearings of substance, hold several throughout the State for women who have been released from Clinton. Then find a safe way for the girls and women inside to speak with candor and without terror about what is happening to them. It is crucial for us to acknowledge and remember that the Department of Corrections is more than a set of institutions, it is also a state of mind. That state of mind has led us here today. 

I have been monitoring New Jersey prisons for 45 years. AFSC Prison Watch has been issuing complaints, reports, letters of human rights concern and meeting with corrections officials for equally as long, with no one listening. We remain grateful that this Committee is willing to listen to those of us, inside and out, who have felt compelled to form our own oversight community.

We look forward to the change that legislators have the power to produce in joining us when we collectively say, “not in my name” can torment, rape, sexual misconduct, discrimination, abuse of power or sexual slavery go on any longer in the State of New Jersey.

Thank you. 

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