New Jersey politicians are calling for the firing of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks after reports emerged this week that prison officials were punching, kicking, and sexually assaulting people at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, the state's only women's prison, according to NJ Advance Media and The Associated Press.
William Sullivan, president of corrections union NJ PBA Local 105, told NJ Advance Media that about 30 officers at the facility have been put on paid administrative leave since prisoners and family members of those incarcerated sent letters to the news outlet describing horrific situations.
Ajila Nelson, who is currently being held in Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, spoke to NJ Advance Media in a phone interview and spoke of what happened to her and other women in the facility on Jan. 11. She wanted her name to be used so that the public could know what was happening.
Nelson said she and other women were handcuffed and attacked before being dragged into showers and sexually assaulted. A trans inmate was beaten so badly that she is now wheelchair-bound because of the damage done to her knee. Another woman has a broken eye socket, according to NJ Advance Media.
“They started throwing punches, throwing punches. I am cuffed so I can’t defend myself. I can’t stop the punches from coming. All I know is they got me to the floor and they started stomping my head. I started getting dizzy and felt like I was going to pass out. Then they grabbed my arm and bent my arm back. I heard it crack and I felt it crack. I tried to look up and look at my arm. As soon as I looked up, I got kicked in my face with a boot. My whole sight went out,” Nelson said.
“Once I looked at him, he grabbed my head back, like ‘Stay f—ing still.’ Then he moved his hands from my breast to my vagina. He put fingers into my vagina. I am trying to move away. They finally got all my clothes off and he snatches his hand out. When he snatches his hand out, he scratches me on my vagina. He was like forcing himself on me. I was screaming for help,” she added, noting that they eventually administered a rap kit after the attack.
“It’s all about cruelty. And forget recourse: If you complain, you get retaliation — every time,” said Toni Bolton, who spent time incarcerated at Edna Mahan.
In addition to Nelson's story, NJ Advance Media spoke to multiple people who said their family members were sending urgent letters and calls for help.
“I’m scared, I’m scared to death for her. I don’t sleep, I don’t eat, I’m on the phone, I’m on the internet, I’m trying to find her some help,” said Trimeka Rollins, the mother of the transgender woman now in the wheelchair.
All 25 Democrats in the State Senate, as well as some Republican women lawmakers on Thursday, called for Hicks to be fired and for an investigation to look into what happened.
“How can we abandon this group of women who are now under the aegis of a group of so-called ‘corrections officers’ where they can be raped, they can be beaten, and if they speak up, there are ways they can be retaliated against? That is horror,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg told News12.
According to The Associated Press and NJ Advance Media, the facility has a long history of officers sexually abusing prisoners and federal authorities have in the past criticized the prison for its treatment of the 395 women held there. The news outlet quotes a U.S. Justice Department report released last April that said sexual assault was “severe and prevalent” at the facility and that those who complained about it were routinely abused further.
“Despite being on notice of this sexual abuse, NJDOC and Edna Mahan failed to take timely action to remedy the systemic problems that enabled correction officers and other staff to continue to sexually abuse Edna Mahan prisoners,” the report said.
Multiple corrections officers have pleaded guilty or been convicted of sexual abuse and misconduct at the prison in recent years, according to The Associated Press, and Nelson said the most recent attack was done because some prisoners were complaining about the conditions.
NJ Advance Media has previously written extensively about the endless reports of sexual abuse at the prison, with some women reporting that they were forced into sex in order to get basic needs like toilet paper.
Our colleague @spsullivan has been writing about this for years, but hearing the inmates at Edna Mahan women's prison describe the alleged sexual abuse there in their own words was harrowing. w/@SusanKLivio
— Kelly Heyboer (@KellyHeyboer) July 2, 2020
“This is not the first report that shows that the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility is out of control, improperly managed, and clearly an abusive danger to the women locked up behind its walls,” Weinberg and Sen. Linda Greenstein wrote in a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy.
“We are calling for the immediate resignation of Commissioner Marcus Hicks. He has demonstrated time and again that he is not up to the task of running the Department of Corrections, a department that holds the responsibility for the custody and care of approximately 20,000 state-sentenced offenders housed across 12 state correctional facilities, county jails and community halfway houses," lawmakers told Murphy in another letter.
Hicks previously faced backlash because New Jersey prisons had the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths of prisoners in the country. Hicks defended his tenure in a statement, saying an investigation was started as soon as the allegations were raised. Surprisingly, Murphy has stood behind Hicks and said he is working on the issue.
But lawmakers went even further, asking the federal government to take over the facility and supervise all of the programs for women inmates.
“We will not stand idly by while women who are voiceless and defenseless are repeatedly victimized by the very people who are charged with their protection and care. The violations of law and of basic human rights that have been allowed to continue under the leadership of Commissioner Hicks must end now,” the letter said according to the New Jersey Globe.
"Every effort should be made to remove all 395 inmates from the Edna Mahan facility and place them in a safer facility and one more conducive to meeting their rehabilitative needs,” according to the letter.