April 13 (UPI) -- The Justice Department has accused New Jersey's only female prison of failing to protect prisoners from sexual abuse by facility staff.
In its 29-page report published Monday, the Justice Department detailed how female inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, in Clinton, N.J., were regularly sexually assaulted by staff in violation of their constitutional right that guarantees prisoners' safety.
"Sexual abuse of women prisoners by Edna Mahan correction officers and staff is severe and prevalent throughout the prison," the report states. "A 'culture of acceptance' of sexual abuse has persisted for many years and continues to be present."
According to the report, some staff abused women through forced sexual contact and penetration. In some instances, inmates were forced to have sex with each other while staff watched. And in at least one instance, an inmate was forced to keep watch to prevent detection as she was sexually assaulted by a corrections officer.
Current and former prisoners described sexual abuse at the prison as "an open secret," the report said.
"Sexual abuse should not be part of any prisoner's punishment," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a statement. "Our investigation found reasonable cause to conclude that women prisoners at Edna Mahan are at substantial risk of sexual abuse by staff because systemic deficiencies discourage prisoners from reporting sexual abuse and allow sexual abuse to occur undetected and undeterred."
The Justice Department's investigation began in April of 2018 and included a four-day on-site review, a review of more than 33,000 pages of documents and dozens of interviews with former and present inmates, staff, investigators, administrators and others.
The investigators said in the report that between 2008 and 2010, at least 16 women claimed they were beaten or sexually abused by one correction officer. Seven of the women formally accused the officer of physical and sexual abuse in two lawsuits. The officer, who maintained his innocence, recently agreed to a $75,000 settlement with six of the former prisoners. In 2018, another prisoner settled a lawsuit against three officers in connection to sexual abuse.
The investigators also said in the report that from October 2016 to April 2019 amid their investigation that seven correction officers and a civilian employee at the facility were arrested and either pleaded guilty or were convicted of charges related to the sexual assault of inmates.
"Most of the incidents involve senior officers, who had worked at Edna Mahan for many years, and multiple victims," the report states.
On top of the eight who have been criminally charged, the New Jersey Department of Corrections has fired or indefinitely suspended several employees due to allegations of sexual assault since 2010 while others were permitted to resign, the report said.
Meanwhile, the allegations of sexual abuse were kept quiet through a system that punished victims who issued complaints, the report said.
According to the investigators, women who report abuse are taken to the medical unit in handcuffs and shackles where they are scanned for contraband, strip searched and relocated to solitary confinement on the maximum security compound for 72 hours until they are interviewed regarding their complaint.
The report said investigations into complaints are "inadequate" and the environment "emboldens Edna staff to seek out opportunities for sexual abuse."
The investigators have recommend a slew of "minimal remedial measures" for the facility to implement, and if state officials have not satisfactorily addressed concerns outlined in the report within 49 days, the attorney general may initiate a lawsuit.
"Sexual abuse cannot be tolerated in any setting, including in jails," said U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito.