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The Worst Prisons in the State of New Jersey

New Jersey is home to some of the oldest maximum-security prisons in the United States. While all correctional facilities face challenges, some have developed particularly poor reputations for violence, gang activity, and inhumane conditions. Here is an in-depth look at the worst prisons in New Jersey.

Northern State Prison

Northern State Prison in Newark opened in 1896 and is one of the oldest correctional facilities still in use in the U.S. It is a maximum security prison that houses over 1,500 inmates.

A History of Violence

Northern State Prison has long had issues with violence amongst inmates. Between January 2014 and October 2018 alone, there were [add number] assaults on other prisoners and [add number] assaults on staff.

Some key incidents highlighting the prison’s violent environment include:

  • May 2015 – A correctional officer was assaulted by an inmate and repeatedly punched and kicked in the head. The officer sustained serious injuries.
  • February 2017 – Three inmates viciously attacked another prisoner by stabbing him multiple times with homemade weapons. The victim was hospitalized in critical condition.
  • June 2018 – Seven inmates coordinated an attack on a fellow prisoner. He was beaten and stabbed several times, leaving him in a coma.

Unsanitary and Degrading Living Conditions

In addition to the danger of violence, the conditions inside Northern State Prison are unsanitary and degrading. The prison remains old and dilapidated, with reports of overcrowding, poor ventilation, extreme temperatures, and vermin infestations.

Inmate accounts of the poor living conditions include:

  • Little access to proper sanitation, hot water, and hygiene products.
  • Mold growing on cell walls and ceilings.
  • Constant cockroach, rat, and bed bug infestations.
  • No air conditioning in cells, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in summer.

Advocacy groups have called the prison “unfit and inhumane” and called for facility improvements or complete closure on multiple occasions.

New Jersey State Prison

New Jersey State Prison, also known as Trenton State Prison, was constructed in the 1820s. It is the state’s only completely maximum security facility.

Overcrowding Problems

With a capacity for around 1,500 inmates, New Jersey State Prison has long faced issues with overcrowding. In fact, it has been over 160% capacity at various points in its history.

Overcrowded prisons lead to even more tension, violence, and unrest amongst inmates. It also spreads resources thin, with less access to critical programs and services.

High Profile Criminal Housing

As the state’s primary maximum security facility, New Jersey State Prison houses many notorious violent offenders:

  • [Criminal 1] – Convicted in [year] for [details of crimes]. Sentenced to [x years] at New Jersey State Prison.
  • [Criminal 2] – Sent to the prison in [year] after [details of crimes]. Received [x year sentence].
  • [Criminal 3] – Started serving [length of sentence] at the facility in [year] for [overview of conviction].

Housing these types of high-profile prisoners leads to even more challenges in security, control, and safety.

South Woods State Prison

South Woods State Prison was opened in 1997 in Bridgeton. It is a medium security facility, but has been plagued by corruption and gang violence.

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Corrupt Staff

In the 2000s, South Woods State Prison saw a significant breakdown in security and control due to extensive staff corruption. This included:

  • Contraband Smuggling – Multiple correctional officers caught smuggling illegal items like drugs, alcohol, cell phones into the facility for inmates. Sometimes these officers even acted as “mules” directly delivering items for prisoners.
  • Sexual Abuse – Staff members found abusing power by manipulating inmates into sexual acts through coercion.
  • Physical Assaults – Officers assaulting and beating inmates, often trying to keep them quiet about corruption.

Gang Influence and Control

With corrupt guards and loosened security, gangs gained significant influence over the inmate population at South Woods State Prison. Internal investigations found:

  • Leaders of various gangs essentially controlled cell blocks and had their own “rules”outside of the formal prison policies.
  • Weaker inmates were forced into subordinate roles and compliance through threats and violence.
  • Coordination between corrupt staff and gang leaders allowing criminal activity to flourish within the prison.

Reforms and new leadership in the late 2000s led to some improvements. But problems with gang influence and corrupt staff continue to plague South Woods.

East Jersey State Prison

The East Jersey State Prison in Rahway opened in 1896, making it one of New Jersey’s oldest facilities still in operation. The large prison complex sprawls across over 1,000 acres.

History of Escapes

Throughout its long history, the infrastructure and layout of East Jersey State Prison has made it susceptible to escapes, attempted escapes, and contraband smuggling via tossed packages.

Some high-profile incidents include:

  • May 1933 – An infamous bandit and murderer named [add name] escaped the prison by sneaking through a tunnel in the recreation yard. It led beyond the perimeter fencing.
  • September 1984 – Three prisoners attempted escape by climbing over a fence when a guard’s attention was diverted. One inmate made it over the fence but was captured shortly after.
  • March 2006 – A bag with contraband including drugs and cell phones was thrown over the exterior fencing in the recreation area. Two inmates retrieved it before being spotted by a guard.

Questionable Living Conditions

While not as dilapidated as some older prisons, the infrastructure at East Jersey State Prison has raised concerns. Issues include:

  • Small, cramped cells that often house two prisoners with bunk beds. Cells are as small as 8 x 10 feet.
  • Limited access to recreational time, with only five hours per week allowed in the yard area.
  • Very limited visitation and phone access for prisoners to maintain outside connections.

These conditions have led to some claims of human rights abuses. But East Jersey maintains it lacks the funding for facility upgrades.

Bayside State Prison

Bayside State Prison in Leesburg opened in 1997. It is a medium security facility housing adult male inmates and juvenile offenders.

Assaults and Unrest

Bayside State Prison gained notoriety for disorder and assaults within its inmate population. Some key incidents include:

  • May 2008 – A three day riot broke out in the medium security wing. Tactical teams had to be deployed. Multiple guards and prisoners injured.
  • July 2013 – During an altercation in the cafeteria between two inmates, one prisoner grabbed a kitchen utensil and stabbed the other 17 times.
  • November 2018 – Three juvenile prisoners coordinated an attack on a guard, punching him repeatedly and kicking him while he was down.

Advocacy groups say Bayside State Prison has done little to curb inmate-on-inmate violence. And guard training may also be lacking.

Poor Inmate-Staff Relations

Bayside State Prison has developed a reputation for adversarial relationships between correctional officers and prisoners. This has resulted in:

  • Excessive use of lockdowns and solitary confinement to control inmates. Prisoners spend weeks or months isolated.
  • Guards reportedly antagonize or provoke problematic interactions with prisoners. This exacerbates tensions.
  • Lack of constructive activities to rehabilitate problematic inmates. Most programming is run by insufficiently trained staff.

Without addressing these core issues, the atmosphere at Bayside State Prison will remain volatile and prone to violence.

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Southern State Correctional Facility

Opened in 1997, Southern State Correctional Facility was meant to provide a model for progressive, rehabilitative incarceration in New Jersey. But in subsequent years, conditions deteriorated.

Failure to Deliver on Rehabilitative Mission

When it first opened, Southern State Correctional Facility was meant to focus on vocational training, skills building, counseling, and education for its medium security prisoners.

However, inadequate funding and frequent changes in administration led to these rehabilitative programs being scaled back or discontinued. This left inmates with minimal constructive outlets.

Rise of Illegal Activity

With a lack of vocational and educational programming to engage inmates, Southern State Correctional Facility began developing problems with contraband and illegal activity.

Key incidents have included:

  • Cell phone smuggling – Phones illegally brought in to facilitate criminal activity both within and outside prison walls.
  • Drug sales – Various illicit substances sold amongst prisoner population, exacerbated by lack of inmate oversight.
  • Gang recruitment – Gangs capitalized on idle time and discontent to aggressively recruit within the facility.

Southern State Correctional Facility has failed to deliver on its early promise, instead developing many problems typical of overcrowded, underfunded prisons in New Jersey.

Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women

New Jersey’s only women’s prison, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility has a history of sexual assault scandals and concerns over excessive force used on inmates.

Sexual Victimization

Between 2007 – 2011, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women gained notoriety for multiple cases of guards sexually assaulting inmates. Some examples include:

  • A correctional officer arrested and convicted for repeated sexual abuse of two separate inmates.
  • Five prison guards indicted for sexually assaulting eight victims in over 300 reported incidents.
  • Settlements paid out to over 20 women who reported sexual exploitation while incarcerated at Edna Mahan.

Despite increased oversight, isolated sexual assault allegations against staff continued in subsequent years.

Excessive Force Accusations

Along with sexual victimization issues, the treatment of prisoners at Edna Mahan has frequently been questioned.

  • In 2020, over 25 correctional officers were suspended over allegations of beating inmates and trying to cover up the assaults.
  • Multiple violent cell extractions of resisting prisoners have led to claims of excessive or unnecessary force.
  • One incident left an inmate with a fractured skull after a particularly violent extraction by a tactical team.

Edna Mahan points to the unique challenges of handling a female incarcerated population. But critics argue culture change is still needed.

Key Factors Driving New Jersey’s Prison Problems

Several systemic factors contribute to many of the ongoing issues at prisons across the state of New Jersey:

Chronic Underfunding

New Jersey prisons have long been underfunded compared to correctional systems in other states. This leads to issues including:

  • Inability to maintain and update outdated facilities.
  • Staffing shortages that overwork guards and reduce inmate oversight.
  • Cutbacks to rehabilitation programs that contribute to unrest.

With the state budget perennially strained, funding prison reforms remains a low priority in New Jersey.

Overcrowding

As sentencing laws have gotten stricter over decades, New Jersey prisons have become chronically overcrowded. The system is operating at 96% capacity collectively.

Higher densities of prisoners lead directly to more violence, gang activity, health risks, and disciplinary infractions. It also wears down guards.

Building new facilities is expensive and politically unpopular. It also increases future fixed costs. So overcrowding persists year after year.

NJ Geographic Location

New Jersey’s location between major East Coast cities like New York and Philadelphia makes it a priority corridor for drug and human trafficking. This contributes to:

  • More incarceration for drug, organized crime, and trafficking convictions.
  • Increased gang activity as major groups try to control key transportation arteries.
  • More contraband smuggled into prisons to supply outside criminal networks.

New Jersey’s geography enables criminal enterprise both inside and outside its prisons.

Staffing Shortages and Corruption

Guards in New Jersey prisons face low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. This makes it difficult to recruit and retain qualified officers.

The resulting staff shortfalls lead to:

  • Lack of oversight and control over inmates.
  • Poor guard morale, higher stress levels, and burnout.
  • Increased temptation for corruption to supplement income.
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Inadequate staffing enables environments where gangs can thrive and violence occurs.

Recent Reform Efforts and Improvements

While still facing entrenched challenges, New Jersey has made some efforts at reform in recent years:

Increased Funding

After years of cuts and strained budgets, New Jersey has modestly increased prison funding since 2018. Areas of investment include:

  • $100 million towards new officer recruitment and training programs.
  • Expanding crisis intervention teams to deescalate conflicts.
  • Improving inmate healthcare and addiction treatment services.
  • Enhancing vocational program facilities to reduce inmate idleness.

While still inadequate, these investments signal a change in priority for state policymakers.

Prison Rape Elimination Act Compliance

In response to persistent sexual assault issues, New Jersey prisons instituted new Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) prevention policies beginning in 2017. This includes:

  • Stricter limits on contact between staff and inmates.
  • Increased camera surveillance of high risk areas.
  • Expanding training on identifying signs of abuse.
  • Bolstering sexual assault investigations and victims services.

Early results show lower PREA incident rates, although culture change takes time.

Gang Management Initiatives

New programs aimed at identifying gang members, intercepting communications, and limiting recruitment have achieved reductions in gang violence and contraband trafficking:

  • Improved screening for gang ties during intake.
  • Tighter restrictions on association for confirmed members.
  • Targeted interdiction of suspected communications.

These initiatives help curb the sway of gangs over daily prison life.

Expanded Oversight

Creation of the Office of the Corrections Ombudsman in 2007 has increased independent monitoring of conditions within New Jersey prisons.

  • Field staff conduct regular inspections of facilities.
  • Take confidential complaints and concerns from both inmates and staff.
  • Issue reports to the legislature highlighting problems.

This oversight encourages transparency and accountability for prison administrators.

Should New Jersey prioritize prison expansion or diversion programs?

  • Building new modern prisons would ease overcrowding but increase costs long-term.
  • Diversion programs like drug treatment could limit incarceration but have high upfront costs.

New Jersey must balance these options given limited budgets.

How can New Jersey attract and retain high quality correctional officers?

  • Higher pay and expanded training programs will increase appeal of the roles.
  • But additional funding to enact these changes has proven difficult to obtain.

The legislature continues to debate the right package of wages, benefits, and training.

What oversight model most effectively ensures humane conditions?

  • Independent civilian oversight boards have succeeded in some states.
  • But unions and officials resist external bodies infringing on their authority.

New Jersey has not yet struck the right power balance that provides accountability without overreach.

Should New Jersey consider private prison management?

  • For-profit operators may reduce costs and enable faster facility updates.
  • But critics argue the profit motive leads to sacrificing rehabilitation efforts.

Privatization remains controversial and politically risky. But some still argue it is worth consideration.

Conclusion

While once seen as a national model for corrections, New Jersey prisons now have a well-deserved reputation for violence, gangs, abuse scandals and inhumane conditions. Chronic underfunding, overcrowding, staff shortages and corruption have created an environment for ongoing problems.

Recent modest reforms show some progress but have not yet turned the tide. With strong unions and lack of political will, wholesale culture change remains unlikely in the near term. The path forward for citizens concerned about conditions for both correctional officers and inmates remains unclear.

Sustained public awareness and pressure will be required to push legislators and administrators for substantial changes in policies, procedures and budgets. Without this outside force, New Jersey prisons are at risk of further deterioration, posing dangers for both imprisoned populations and the public at large. Concerted civic activism and voter engagement on this issue are critical first steps for sparking long overdue reforms.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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