EXPLAINER: Why does NJ women’s prison have ‘ugly history’ ?

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey’s attorney general, charging three male prison guards with misconduct this week in connection with an attack on female inmates, said the state’s lone women’s prison has an “ugly history.” Indeed it hasn’t even been a year since the U.S. government said abuse at the facility was an “open secret.”

But how was abuse an open secret? Why wasn’t something done about it? Below is a closer look at the history of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

This week, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal charged one guard with assault and misconduct and two sergeants at the prison with misconduct counts, saying they also tried to cover up the January attack on at least six inmates.

One woman was punched 28 times and pepper-sprayed, while another had bones broken near her eye, Grewal said.

More charges could be coming, he said.

News from the prison spurred lawmakers to call for the state Department of Corrections commissioner’s resignation, led to criminal investigations and pushed Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy to hire a former state comptroller to conduct a separate investigation.

WHO SAYS ABUSE WAS AN OPEN SECRET? AND WHY?

Federal prosecutors found former and current prisoners called sexual abuse an “open secret.”

The prosecutors uncovered a “culture of acceptance” of sexual abuse of inmates — details to back the claim up.

In April, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, the U.S. Justice Department published a scathing report about the prison, located in Clinton, Hunterdon County, more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of New York City.

Five guards and one civilian worker at the prison pleaded guilty or were convicted of sexually abusing more than 10 women from 2016 to 2019.

The report found that there were insufficient cameras, and that one storage room without a surveillance camera, had a a mattress lying in it.

Guards regularly called prisoners disparaging names, graphically commented on their appearances and remarked on their sexual inclinations.

The report also found that when inmates reported abuse, the response could be retaliatory, with inmates being subjected to body orifice scanners and then being placed into solitary confinement.

HOW DID THE STATE RESPOND TO THE REPORT?

The state Department of Corrections oversees the prison, and a spokesperson for the department says it’s committed to changing the culture at the facility and has made a number of changes, including: hiring more female guards, installing more surveillance cameras and increasing training for prisoners and staff.

The department also is hiring an assistant commission for women’s services.

DID THE JANUARY INCIDENT INVOLVE SEXUAL ASSAULT?

None of the charges Grewal brought this week are for sexual assault. But that doesn’t mean sexual assault hasn’t been raised. One inmate, Ajila Nelson, told NJ.com that she was attacked, kicked in the face, groped and sexually assaulted.

IS THE STATE DOING ENOUGH?

Not for some, no. Every Democratic state senator signed a letter asking Murphy to fire Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks.

Murphy has said he finds the reports of the attack at the prison sickening, but declined to speak further about it, including on Friday at a news conference. Murphy has hired Matt Boxer, an attorney and former state comptroller and federal prosecutor, to investigate what happened in January at the prison.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The three guards face March hearings in state court, and the attorney general suggested more charges could be coming. Tom Eicher, the director of the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability under Grewal, said additional charges are likely.

A timeline for the investigation ordered by the governor isn’t clear, nor yet is the cost to the public of hiring an outside firm to look into the matter.

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