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Murphy says he plans to close NJ's only women's prison

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey’s long-troubled and only women’s prison faces closure as details of “horrific attacks” by guards against inmates emerged in a new report, the state’s governor said Monday.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy reached the decision to close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, which could take years, after reviewing a new investigative report he commissioned on a January attack by mostly male prison guards on female inmates.

The January events have led to criminal charges against 10 guards — eight men and two women — by the state attorney general, whose investigation is still underway.

Attorneys for some of the guards have said their clients will fight the charges and plead not guilty.

Among the new details in the document: some female inmates were forced to strip and submit to searches in front of male guards.

“I am deeply disturbed and disgusted by the horrific attacks that took place on January 11. 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 said.

The 75-page report is based on interviews with some officers as well as Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, and the corrections ombudsperson, videos, and 21,000 documents and emails.

It offers details about the Jan. 11 and 12 attacks on what Attorney General Gurbir Grewal called an attack on at least six inmates. Among its findings are that guards used excessive force on inmates and filed false reports after removing inmates from their cells. The staff also failed to bar male guards from viewing female inmates during strip searches, in violation of policy.

The report also offers new details about what led up to the attack and how it unfolded.

It says that in the days before the attack, there was “a coordinated effort” by some inmates to “splash” prison guards, a term referring to throwing liquids, including urine and feces, at them. The report notes that the head of the prison guards’ labor union said officers had been upset, and things were at a “boiling point.”

On Jan. 11, an inmate splashed a correction officers with an unknown liquid around dinner time, leading to a halt to mealtime. After it resumed, another inmate sprayed another officer resulting in another halt, according to the report. Afterward, some 22 prisoners were taken from their cells so guards could search and discard contraband being used to project liquids at guards. Inmates sometimes modified hair conditioner bottles using a pen to project liquids at guards, the report notes.

The report called the extraction of inmates from cells a “misguided effort by frustrated employees to restore order and mete out discipline.” It was during those removals that inmates were injured, the report said.

Inmates were ordered to be stripped searched, including one who was made to walk through part of the prison with her chest exposed. She was also pepper-sprayed and punched in the face 28 times, according to the report.

“The officers lock Inmate 2 in the shower for her to strip (the door is grated but has a curtain in front of it). She says, ‘Y’all want to beat the life out of me,'” the report says. “A male officer tells her to strip and put her pants through the porthole. She says, ‘Please back up, I don’t have no clothes on.'”

She gives her clothes to a female officer, but male guards remain present, according to the report, contrary to policy, which says inmates are to be strip-searched by guards of their same gender.

Another inmate, identified only as Inmate 1 in the report, was ordered to submit to a strip search, and when she refused, guards began using a hooked blade to begin cutting her clothes off, according to the report. She was then taken to be strip-searched, and male officers were present, according to the report.

Reports filed by sergeants said Inmate 1 had no injuries, but a nurse at the prison later determined she had broken her arm.

Murphy said shuttering the prison could take years and that he would work with lawmakers to address closing it during this year’s budget process. Murphy, a Democrat, said he wants to send the roughly 370 inmates there to other or a new facility.

The prison in Clinton, Hunterdon County, more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of New York City, dates to 1913. Grewal has said it has an “ugly history,” part of which was documented in an April 2020 U.S Justice Department report that found a “culture of acceptance” of sexual abuse of inmates.

In April, the state reached a nearly $21 million settlement over longstanding allegations of abuse and harassment at the facility.

Mike Catalini, The Associated Press