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‘Gender specialist’ to be hired and other reforms made at troubled New Jersey women’s prison

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‘Gender specialist’ to be hired and other reforms made at troubled New Jersey women’s prison

Sep 16, 2022 | 2:33 pm ET
By Dana DiFilippo
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‘Gender specialist’ to be hired and other reforms made at troubled New Jersey women’s prison
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N.J.'s only prison for women has made a series of reforms, one year into its independent oversight after brutality and sex abuse scandals. (Getty Images)

New Jersey’s only female prison, which is under independent oversight after brutality and sex abuse scandals, will hire a “gender specialist” to support transgender inmates, has outfitted all correctional officers with body cameras, and has expanded efforts to recruit female guards.

State Department of Corrections officials and independent monitors reported the changes during a public meeting held Friday to detail progress the troubled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility has made since the U.S. Department of Justice accused the state in 2018 of long-ignored civil rights abuses.

Under a settlement agreement made last year, the state is required to implement wide-ranging reforms. Friday’s meeting covered progress made from February through August this year and marked the end of the first year of the three-year agreement.

Jane Parnell, the appointed monitor, said she spent recent months making site visits and talking with inmates and staff. She expects to issue a written report in early November.

The changes reported include:

  • A gender specialist will be hired at Edna Mahan to provide psychotherapy services and support gender-questioning and transgender inmates. Last spring, the department revealed a transgender inmate had impregnated two other inmates at Edna Mahan, prompting officials to review their housing and other policies on transgender inmates. Those policies remain under review, according to the department’s commissioner, Victoria Kuhn.
  • A new special victims unit launched in April to handle sexual abuse complaints systemwide. Fifty-four complaints were filed this year from January through August, but 37% of those were filed by a single inmate, who later was charged with falsifying statements, said Kelly Daniels of the department’s special investigations division. Twenty-two cases remain open, but none of the others were substantiated, Daniels said. She credited increased video surveillance with helping reduce false allegations.
  • The department increased its recruitment efforts to hire more female correctional officers. About half of Edna Mahan’s guards are female, said Kristina Chubenko, the department’s chief of staff.
  • Officials installed more stationary cameras at Edna Mahan and put more than 190 body cameras in rotation to outfit all on-duty correctional officers there.

The aging prison in Hunterdon County remains slated for closure, although Kuhn declined to say when because officials are still waiting on recommendations and a timeline from a consultant hired to identify a new location. Edna Mahan now houses about 400 women, according to departmental data.