To protect inmates in New Jersey's only women's prison from sexual abuse the U.S. Justice Department and the state Department of Corrections reached an agreement to install an independent monitor, among other reforms, officials said Tuesday.
The agreement, which must still be approved by a federal judge before taking effect, calls for the establishment of confidential methods for inmates to report sexual abuse, as well as protections against retaliation for reporting abuse. The accord also requires more transparency through public meetings with stakeholders, including one-time prisoners at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.
"Our agreement addresses the systemic issues that have plagued the Edna Mahan facility, ensures that women incarcerated there will receive the basic protections they are entitled to under the Constitution, and requires accountability through public transparency," said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke in a statement.
The state Department of Corrections said in a statement that the agreement marks a step in transforming the culture at the prison.
"We look at this measure as an opportunity to close the book on the sordid history of the facility and pen a new way forward, driven by integrity, safety, and support services to help those in our care flourish," Acting Commissioner Victoria Kuhn said.
The announcement was expected, though it's just the latest in a cascade of developments at the prison.
The Justice Department issued a report in April 2020 finding that state official running the prison violated inmates' constitutional rights by failing to protect them from sexual abuse, despite being aware of systemic problems.
Then came news that in January 2021 that guards at the prison conducted violent raids on inmates in which some were punched and pepper-sprayed, according to authorities and video released from officials' cameras. The state attorney general had called the cell extractions a brutal attack, and 10 guards face criminal charges.
That led to calls from lawmakers for the state's top corrections official to be removed from office. Marcus Hicks announced his resignation in June, and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said he planned to shutter the prison — a move that could take years.
Justice Department officials said Tuesday that even if the prison closes, the consent agreement would still apply to any facility that succeeds Edna Mahan.
Amid the fallout from what officials called the January attack, the state settled over 20 lawsuits filed by current and former inmates who say they were direct victims of sexual misconduct, as well as all inmates incarcerated since Jan. 1, 2014.
The state is paying out nearly $21 million in damages and attorney’s fees to the women involved in what officials said was an "unprecedented" amount of compensation aimed at providing relief from well-documented culture of accepting abuse.
The consent agreement names Jane Parnell, a former Washington state correctional administrator, as the independent monitor. Her salary would be set at a maximum of $250,000 a year, paid by the state.
The public meetings are to be held at least semi-annually and should give the public and stakeholders an update, a chance to ask questions, and respond to requests for information.