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Women’s Prison Plagued by Sexual Violence to Close, Governor Says

The only women’s prison in New Jersey will close after female inmates endured years of sexual assault by guards and were subjected to a violent nighttime raid in January, Gov. Philip D. Murphy announced Monday.

The decision comes months after a midnight cell extraction at the prison, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, left several women with serious injuries and led to the arrest of at least 10 correction officers and supervisors.

But some advocates for prisoners criticized the move by Mr. Murphy, arguing that the closing does not address the systemic issues they say have plagued the women’s prison, located in the western part of the state.

Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, has ignored a drumbeat of criticism by legislators who have demanded that he fire the corrections commissioner, Marcus O. Hicks, in response to the Jan. 11 melee and a scathing Justice Department report. The report, issued in April 2020, found pervasive sexual abuse at the facility and called for sweeping changes to address “systemic failures.”

Instead, the corrections department hired a private consultant, the Moss Group, weeks after the January raid, and Mr. Murphy commissioned the state’s former comptroller, Matt Boxer, to conduct a private investigation as the state’s attorney general pursued criminal charges against officers.

Mr. Boxer’s report, released on Monday, documented weeks of tension before the January episode, including prisoners splashing officers with bodily fluids.

“Officers felt that inmates were not being held accountable for their actions and that their supervisors were not protecting them,” the report states.

The tension, exacerbated by Covid-19 safety precautions, reached a boiling point just before midnight on Jan. 11, the report found.

“Officers involved in this incident, both directly and indirectly, abused their power to send a message that they were in charge. The excessive use of force, as outlined in the report, cannot and will not be tolerated,” Mr. Murphy said in a statement.

He said he had concluded that “the only path forward is to responsibly close the facility,” relocating the women to a new prison or “other facilities.” State officials said shutting down the prison would take several years.

“While this will not happen overnight,” he added, “I intend to work with legislative leadership during the current budget cycle to allocate funding to begin this multiyear process.”

Edna Mahan, which first opened in 1913 and houses about 380 women serving sentences for a range of nonviolent and violent offenses, comprises several buildings and trailers on a sprawling campus in Hunterdon County near Clinton, N.J.

Bonnie Kerness, a program director with the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch who is in regular communication with women at the facility, said Mr. Murphy’s decision was abrupt and shortsighted.

She said the results of the dual private investigations the state is funding should have been released and evaluated at public hearings before a sudden announcement about closing a facility that she said is the women’s home.

“We close a facility because women were beaten?” she asked. “Wouldn’t it be more logical to punish the abusers and continue the work on reform of the organizational culture?”

“The beatings were a condition of confinement having nothing to do with the physical structure,” Ms. Kerness added. “How is closure and relocation relevant to what happened? How will it serve to change the existing culture throughout all of New Jersey prisons?”

William Sullivan, the president of a statewide union representing more than 6,000 correction officers, said he was “blindsided” by the sudden announcement.

“I think it’s an overreach — more of a feel-good kind of maneuver,” said Mr. Sullivan, who leads the Police Benevolent Association, Local 105.

He said he believed that progress was being made to address the problems identified by the Justice Department as well as those that led to the 10 arrests after the January incident.

“Now you’re actually going to start from scratch again,” he added.

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