State Watch

New Jersey agrees to federal monitoring of how female prisoners are treated

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The Department of Justice has reached an agreement with New Jersey to monitor its treatment of incarcerated women following allegations of abuse, with federal officials warning of taking similar steps at other state prisons.

The consent decree, which still needs to be approved by the courts, would seek to address a pattern of sexual abuse of inmates at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women that the Justice Department said they uncovered during a two-year investigation.

“This agreement sets forth the remedies necessary to protect the constitutional rights of prisoners to reasonable safety from sexual abuse by prison staff,” Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights, told reporters on a call Tuesday.

“Women prisoners are highly likely to have suffered physical and sexual abuse before their incarceration, which renders them particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and the trauma that often follows,” she added. “It’s essential that we take steps to prevent this violence.”

Clarke, a Biden appointee, was joined by U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Rachael A. Honig.

Consent decrees are one of the Justice Department’s most useful tools for tackling civil rights infractions, though they were rarely used during the Trump administration.

The legal agreements are usually the byproduct of investigations that the agency often undertakes, particularly in situations of police misconduct allegations.

When asked about the possibility of similar action being taken against other state and local prisons, a senior Justice Department official noted Tuesday that the agency has a “number of investigations open right now” in multiple states, including Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi and New Jersey.

Clarke described putting an end to prison violence and abuse, particularly sexual assault, as “a priority for the Civil Rights Division” at the agency.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) announced in June that the state plans to close Edna Mahan, which is New Jersey’s only correctional facility for women. The decision follows an investigation into a Jan. 11 incident in which 22 of the inmates were removed from their cells, many violently, with one inmate later making a sexual assault allegation against an officer.

One woman was punched 28 times by an officer and others were sprayed with pepper spray to force them out of their cells, according to the investigation.

At least 10 people have been charged with being involved in or helping cover up the assaults.

The senior Justice department official said the consent decree with New Jersey would remain in place even if the prison was shut down, applying to women who were transferred to other facilities or if a new women-only facility was constructed in the state.

Tags Consent decree federal monitoring Kristen Clarke New Jersey Prison

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