It has been 18 years since Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which officially called for a zero-tolerance policy while aiming to curb the sexual violence plaguing correctional institutions across the country.
Unfortunately, female prisoners continue to suffer sexual abuse while incarcerated at alarming numbers, whether by a fellow inmate or prison employee. Women in prison are 30 times more likely to be raped than women who are not, and while females account for less than ten percent of inmates, their reports account for 75 percent of assaults.
However, in recent weeks there have been legal actions taken on behalf of women at two particular prisons, the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County, New Jersey and the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Wildwood, Florida.
Pending Prison Closure
On June 7, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced his plans to close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. He also discussed the results of an investigation he called for regarding what has been dubbed “a night of terror.’’
On January 12, 2021, prison officials conducted cell extractions allegedly using extreme force. Women were pulled from cells by their hair and violently beaten in the face. At least one woman reported a fractured skull bone. More than 30 staff members were suspended, and ten officers were charged over inmate beatings or for aiding in a coverup.
Gov. Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed and disgusted” by what happened.
“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,” he said.
This is far from the first time Edna Mahan has been under fire. In 2017, prisoners filed a class-action lawsuit against the prison, charging state officials with ignoring the rampant sexual harassment and assaults by guards on inmates.
While the governor noted the “long history of abusive incidents” at the facility and stressed the state must commit to “completely breaking this pattern of misconduct to better serve incarcerated women entrusted to the state’s care,” other leaders, like State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic County), believe the governor’s actions do not go far enough.
Corrado believes the source of the problems can be found not in a physical structure but within New Jersey’s leadership. “It’s unclear how closing the facility at taxpayer expense will remedy the leadership concerns that will persist regardless of where the inmates are located,” she said in an interview with NJ Advance Media. “The building didn’t fail these women. The Murphy administration did.”
Florida Government to Pay Abused Prisoners
Fourteen women in Florida who brought a lawsuit against prison officers at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex received a legal settlement of $1.26 million. The lawsuit alleged the officers repeatedly forced the women to perform sex acts, assaulted them outside the view of surveillance cameras and stalked them into submission.
While several of the officers at Coleman, located outside of Orlando, admitted to having sexual contact with inmates, no officers were prosecuted. Instead, they either retired or resigned.
Along with Coleman, which is under federal jurisdiction, Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, which falls under the Florida Department of Corrections, was rebuked by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2020.
A scathing investigation by the Miami Herald prompted the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ to hold its own investigation and release a 36-page report detailing crimes committed against inmates. According to the report, the Florida Department of Corrections has known the pattern of staff sexual abuse at the prison for years. The DOJ pushed some corrective measures forward for the Florida Department of Corrections and Lowell, specifically how it should handle future sexual abuse investigations.
While investigations, recommendations and lawsuits support efforts to solve the crimes against incarcerated women, much more still needs to be done. The legal system’s focus on arresting the perpetrators of sexual crimes needs to be thoroughly overhauled.
Denise Rock, the executive director of the prisoner advocacy group Florida Cares, applauded recent efforts by lawmakers while stressing the need for more change.
“We keep paying out plenty of lawsuits, but we’re not making changes,” she said to the Miami Herald. “When someone has to pay money, it does give you pause. But is an officer being arrested?”