False complaints next challenge for NJ prison trying to change culture of abuse

A lieutenant with the Department of Corrections is due to retire in a few months. But before he does, he is hoping for a last-minute transfer from Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, which has been plagued by abuse in recent years.

His reasoning? He fears a prisoner will falsely accuse him of sexual misconduct, triggering an investigation that could destroy his career and keep him from collecting the pension he has worked years to earn.

The officer’s concerns are documented in an April report from a federal prison monitor overseeing Edna Mahan after the U.S. Department of Justice in 2020 found rampant sexual abuse of inmates by corrections officers.

Now, as leaders work to rid the state’s only women’s prison of abuse, monitor Jane Parnell said the facility must address false sexual abuse or harassment allegations, which she charged inmates have used to threaten and retaliate against officers they don’t like.

Parnell said prisoners are “weaponizing” the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a federal law protecting inmates from sexual abuse.

She called it one of the “most prevalent and vociferous” messages she heard during interviews with both staff and inmates.

“Some prisoners have literally been known to say to staff and or other prisoners, ‘I’m going to PREA you’, meaning they are going to file a false PREA complaint on that person,” Parnell wrote in her report.

Advocates acknowledge that inmates sometimes file false complaints. But they say they stem from many years of abuse in a system where women’s complaints have long been ignored.

“As long as there is neglect and a blind eye turned to issues that prisoners raise around mistreatment or any abuse, as long as people feel as though they have been ignored, then there is always potential to create false stories to get attention,” he said. Nafeesah Goldsmith, a former Edna Mahan inmate and prison lawyer.

So far this year, there have been 50 PREA complaints against corrections officers at Edna Mahan, union representatives said. According to the DOC, 20 officers are currently reassigned because of those investigations. In comparison, prisoners made 22 complaints in all of 2019, according to a state report.

DOC Commissioner Victoria Kuhn said in a statement that the department “has zero-tolerance for any abuse of the incarcerated population and takes enforcement of the PREA law seriously.”

Still, she added: “It is equally critical that the Department investigate each allegation in an appropriate, thorough, and expeditious manner to ensure safety, to lessen misuse of PREA, and to establish trust in the system.”

Parnell, one of the nation’s leading prison reform experts, wrote that a relatively small number of prisoners are making false allegations at Edna Mahan but said the consequences could be “devastating.”

She and DOC officials, union leaders, advocates, and current and former prisoners say false allegations create staffing problems, hurt employee morale, and diminish those who have legitimate complaints. Parnell said they could also delay promotions or retirement benefits, which is why officers don’t want to work at Edna Mahan.

William Sullivan, president of Local PBA 105, the union representing most DOC officers, said working at Edna Mahan is simply “not worth the chance.”

He said one prisoner recently “PREA’d” more than a dozen officers who had been in contact with her.

“I would venture to say every single officer at Edna Mahan walks on eggshells out of fear of being falsely accused of PREA or assault allegations,” Sullivan said. “It is such an issue that officers who, in the past, may have been proactive and by the book do the bare minimum out of fear of this.”

‘Hell of a weapon’

Edna Mahan, in recent years, has been plagued by allegations of sexual and physical abuse, making national headlines. The facility is under a federal consent decree, and the DOC recently announced a nearly $ 21 million settlement with prisoners abused while in its custody.

Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the prison closed, though no date has been set.

Parnell, the federal monitor, said it is not uncommon for false complaints to rise as a spotlight is put on a prison.

But former prisoners and advocates say it goes beyond that.

False allegations are “a desperate act that results from desperate conditions,” said Julie Abbate, a former DOJ employee who helped expose abuse at Edna Mahan.

“To the extent that a handful of women may be using PREA in a way other than it was intended, that’s an indication of a severe problem going on at the facility level,” she added.

Goldsmith, the former inmate turned advocate, recalled how she and others constantly complained to the prison ombudsman while incarcerated but eventually gave up because authorities ignored them.

“If you had listened to them then, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” she said.

Goldsmith said she does not condone making false allegations, but because officers have always wielded power in prison, women have begun using PREA to flip that.

“What do you think they mean when they are saying, ‘I’m going to PREA you?'” She said. “It’s, ‘I’m going to reverse the power that you think you have on me, and I’m going to put it on you. I am the one in control. ‘”

“It’s a hell of a weapon,” Goldsmith added.

Bonnie Kerness, a longtime prisoner advocate, said a prisoner recently described how the weaponization of PREA is also used against other inmates to get someone moved from a unit.

“It’s such a mess,” said Kerness, program director for the nonprofit American Friends Service Committee’s prison program.

A logistical nightmare

In 2003, Congress unanimously passed PREA, a landmark law to protect prisoners against sexual abuse and harassment by staff and other inmates.

It provides prisoners ways to report alleged misconduct and mandates that they have access to medical and mental health services for any alleged abuse.

In New Jersey, once an inmate makes a complaint, it triggers an investigation by the DOC’s Special Investigations Division. Accused officers are typically moved to a unit where they have no contact with prisoners during the probe, which can take months, said Sullivan, the union leader.

If the alleged actions could constitute criminal charges, the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office jointly investigates the matter.

In the interim, another officer fills the accused officer’s position, creating a shuffling of personnel to ensure all units are well staffed.

As complaints rise, Sullivan said it becomes a logistical nightmare.

“It creates a huge, huge issue with staffing,” he said of false allegations.

The concerns come as DOC Commissioner Victoria Kuhn said the department is down 600 officers, a shortage she claims has existed since 2017.

After SID investigators interview officers and witnesses, they determine if the allegation was substantiated. Then the facility’s administrator takes action based on the finding.

Parnell said there are two ways for the DOC to address the abuse of PREA.

She suggested the department increase the speed and efficiency of its investigations so accused officers and inmates can more quickly return to their usual duties or housing units if cleared of wrongdoing.

“When this happens in an immediate and consistent manner, the prisoners quickly learn it doesn’t ‘work’ to file a false PREA allegation,” she wrote in her report.

Secondly, Parnell said the DOC could start holding those who file false allegations accountable, though she warned that could discourage inmates with legitimate complaints.

She recalled how one prisoner made a PREA complaint that was later substantiated but initially felt “discounted as a victim” because of the perception created by false allegations.

Sperrazza, the DOC spokesman, said prisoners have been criminally charged or faced administrative charges for false PREA complaints, though the decision to punish is “made on a case-by-case basis with care to not discourage legitimate victims from coming forward for fear of retaliation. ”

He said the DOC created a new Special Victims Unit – made up of investigators in SID who have received trauma-informed specialized training – to handle all PREA allegations in a timely manner.

Abbate, the advocate, said “swift, thorough and accurate investigations” are key to dismantling the problem and ensuring PREA is used as designed.

“It’s really heartbreaking if these folks use these reporting mechanisms for purposes other than they were intended,” she said. “Overall, it tends to hurt folks who are true survivors. Nobody wants that ever. It is hard enough to get someone to believe someone who is locked up. ”

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Joe Atmonavage may be reached at jatmonavage@njadvancemedia.com

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