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New Jersey to close state's only women's prison following 'horrific attacks' by guards

Gov. Phil Murphy announced he would close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility after an independent investigation into a Jan. 11 attack on inmates.
Protesters at the entrance to the Edna Mahan Correction Facility in Clinton, N.J., on March 27, 2021.
Protesters at the entrance to the Edna Mahan Correction Facility in Clinton, N.J., on March 27, 2021.Chris Pedota / via USA Today Network

New Jersey is set to close its only women’s correctional facility following an independent investigation into “cell extractions” and violence against inmates that has led to criminal charges.

At least 10 guards at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women have been charged in a state investigation into attacks against inmates that occurred on Jan. 11. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that he intends to close the facility, though he did not offer a timeline or plan as to how that might occur.

“I am deeply disturbed and disgusted by the horrific attacks that took place on January 11,” Murphy said. “Individuals in state custody deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and the officers involved in this incident, both directly and indirectly, abused their power to send a message that they were in charge.”

Murphy also released a partially redacted, 75-page report on the attacks based on video evidence, emails and interviews with staff members. The report stated that the cell extractions that occurred in January “were so mishandled as to result in the injury of multiple inmates and the ultimate suspension of 34 EMCF supervisors and staff.”

Cell extractions are not a defined policy, but “generally entail the removal of an inmate from her cell by an extraction team,” and extractions against an inmate’s will “inherently” come with expectation of use of force, the report stated. On the night of Jan. 11, two extraction teams wearing riot gear and carrying pepper spray attempted to extract 22 inmates, some of whom complied.

One inmate was taken to a room and ordered to strip down, with male officers present, and refused. Male officers left and the inmate still refused, though she made a verbal comment heard on video that indicated she might have something hidden in her genitals, according to the report.

Officers began to cut off her clothes and at one point was taken to a cell where about four or five officers, including males, were seen crowding her but she was not visible on the camera, the report said. She was left unconscious and naked on the floor, and an official report said she was uninjured and declined medical evaluation. But a nurse’s report from the next day stated that the inmate had scratches, visible purple bruises, and a broken arm that required a cast, according to the state report.

The inmate also told investigators that a male correction’s officer “digitally penetrated her in the course of the strip search and caused vaginal bleeding.”

Another inmate who did not want to be removed from her cell was pepper sprayed and punched “numerous times on her face, chest and back,” the report said. When she leaves the cell, she has an open shirt and a visibly bloody mouth, according to the reviewed video footage.

Her requests to be covered up were not answered, the report said.

She was also taken to a shower and ordered to strip, in the presence of male guards. She refused, referencing the Prison Rape Elimination Act, but was threatened with pepper spray. The inmate compiled after being threatened by a guard, the investigation report said.

Although the official use-of-force record from that night stated this inmate was also uninjured, a nurse’s medical evaluation contradicts that claim.

“The on-site medical report from that night, however, states that she had a bleeding lower lip, which is visible on the video footage,” the report said. “The next day, she was assessed by a nurse ... who noted that she had a swollen red/purple lower lip with a small cut inside, bruises on her eye, arm, and shoulder, and a cut on her right hand.”

A senior corrections facility officer told investigators that video footage of that night was “one of the most disturbing series of videos I have ever seen,” according to the report.

The investigation concluded that there was a failure to establish proper protocol for cell extractions, that staff failed to properly record the extractions, that staff used excessive force and that they filed false reports. It also found that there was a failure to prevent male officers from viewing and participating in the strip searches, as per state policy, while also lying in reports about the searches being conducted only by female staff.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal has filed charges against 10 corrections staff members, eight male and two female, and has said his office will continue to investigate the incident. The charges filed to date vary but include official misconduct, aggravated assault, and tampering with public records.