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Rutgers Law School students help secure $20.8 million settlement for incarcerated people subjected to sexual abuse

Students at Rutgers Law School helped people receive compensation for years of abuse suffered at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. – Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm

Students at Rutgers Law School and Seton Hall Law School recently helped current and formerly incarcerated individuals in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women receive a large settlement against the prison.

The class action settlement, reached in April 2021, totaled a historic $20.8 million and granted funds to incarcerated individuals who suffered directly or indirectly from the effects of sexual abuse while detained at the facility, according to a press release.

Crystal Mor Henwood, a third-year student at Rutgers Law School, said the settlement established three tiers of financial relief for anyone detained for at least a day in the facility during or after 2014. They said first-tier grants for those detained in the facility after 2014 ranged anywhere from $1,020 to $2,920.

The second relief tier grants up to $4,500 to individuals who experienced targeted sexual harassment, verbal abuse or retaliation, while the third tier grants up to $250,000 to individuals who experienced sexual assault in detention, Henwood said. 

Sexual assault does not include strip searches, they said. Such acts only qualify under the second tier if the search was punitive.

"One thing that some of these women have to wrestle with is that they don't know if they said 'no' enough," they said. "When you're in a cage, and somebody is an officer in a superior position, there's no such thing as consent."

Individuals in the second and third tiers seeking restitution must file an affidavit with the court. Additionally, individuals who qualify under the second tier can opt not to present their experiences in a hearing while those in the third tier have to, Henwood said.

Jill Friedman, associate dean for Pro Bono and Public Interest at Rutgers Law School, said students at the two law schools helped document the claimants' experiences into affidavits and assisted with their hearings.

Viktoria Zerda, a Rutgers Law School alum who aided with the project, said it was difficult to obtain testimony due to the traumatic nature of the experiences the claimants were discussing.

Distrust in the advocates also served as a barrier, according to Erin Romano, a Seton Hall law student. During phone interviews especially, incarcerated individuals were sometimes reluctant to divulge critical details of their experience.

Halley Sotelo, a J.D. candidate at Rutgers Law School involved in the case, said another issue was that when claimants shared their experiences, some of the details they shared could not be legally considered during the litigation.

For many people that Sotelo spoke to, this was the first time their stories were being heard outside of the prison. Therefore, the claimants would discuss forms of mistreatment they experienced, regardless of whether they were sexual, she said.

Since the settlement only pertained to sexual violence and harassment, such details were legally immaterial in court. 

Other difficulties during the settlement process pertained to safety and confidentiality, Henwood said. In many cases, incarcerated individuals did not have records of their claims of abuse due to concerns about retribution from the accused persons. Sometimes, they were also reluctant to attend hearings due to the same fears.

Despite these challenges, Henwood said proof of abuse experienced by those in the facility is not necessary in order to obtain compensation due to the persistent culture of abuse associated with the prison. Instead, evidence bolsters the victims' claims and increases the amount of money they receive.

"How do you prove (these experiences)?" Henwood said. "Some part of it comes down to the way people tell their stories and to what degree the special master believes them. Some people have had such remarkable detail. And the other way that I have seen it sort of verified is that I constantly hear the same officers' names come up in the same situations over and over (again)."

Shauna Friedman, an associate at Williams Cedar and an attorney involved in the case, said the settlement sought to foster accountability for the future.

She said that while the facility had cameras that could have captured incarcerated individuals being assaulted, cameras were often non-functioning or turned away. The settlement requires an overhaul of those cameras and body cameras to collect footage, Friedman said.

While Rutgers students have only recently become involved in this issue, Edna Mahan has a history of recorded mistreatment, Henwood said. The prison's conditions have historically resulted in poor hygiene, solitary confinement and power imbalances. 

Despite this, the facility has not always been in such a disparate state, Romano said. According to her research, the facility was once likened to a college campus and was used for agriculture. The woman the facility is named after, Edna Mahan, was also described positively.

Under her leadership, certain services like a maternity wing, natal care, floral landscaping and open residential areas were made available to incarcerated individuals, Romano said. She said she has not found any records of sexual violence during that time.

"There was one story where (Mahan) had to go pick somebody up from Trenton, someone who was serving a sentence there," she said, “And she just drove down, picked them up and drove them back. Everyone was like, 'aren’t you afraid?' and she was like, 'no, they're people.'"

Humanizing incarcerated individuals is an important part of advocacy and addressing issues like sexual assault in the prison system, Romano and Henwood said. The latter said incarcerated individuals are ignored once they are sentenced.

"I will say, it's pretty terrible everywhere. It's very terrible everywhere. We don't treat people who are incarcerated as human beings, we treat them as problems that we will no longer have to deal with, as monsters that we will no longer have to deal with," they said.

Even after the settlement was issued in 2021, Henwood said that many claimants have still not received their checks from the courts due to the bureaucratic process of how these payments are rolled out.

So far, only claimants who fall under the first tier have received their checks while claimants who filed under the second and third tier will receive their funds at a future, unspecified time, according to the settlement’s timeline.

Such delays negatively impact claimants, many of whom are relying on incoming checks to pay for critical surgeries, medical treatments and housing solutions, Henwood said. To them, the delay is synonymous with the sensation of being left behind.

"The court system is not a system of empowerment," they said. "It does not apologize beyond a check. It doesn’t call to check in with you. It doesn’t ask if you’re feeling re-traumatized by having to tell another man about how and where you were touched."

Beyond Edna Mahan, individuals released from prison often face discrimination by employers and landlords after their detention ends, said Denise Higgins, legal director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

After re-entering society, women specifically often accept unsafe and unprofitable jobs in order to provide for their families, according to Higgins. She said they also often have children at home waiting in possibly dangerous situations.

But work is being done to mitigate these issues. For example, Henwood facilitated a financial program for claimants that provides access to personal consultations with a financial planner, credit counselor and educational resources.

Between organizations at the grassroots level and legal professionals, Zerda said that there is potential to collaborate with local communities and pool resources to create larger movements for lasting change.

"What I fear is that (the settlement’s completion) means everyone’s going to stop talking about it," Higgins said. "It's not over if there are still things that are happening in the prison, (and) it's still not safe for the women that are there … We need to keep talking about it, we really need to keep pushing for more oversight and shining a light."

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