On Tuesday, New Jersey lawmakers swiftly approved several prison reform bills, including a mandate that all officers must wear body cameras in prisons — a step towards keeping staff accountable and setting the record straight when prisoners make complaints, NJ.com reports.
Advocates are pleased, noting that body camera mandates for prison personnel is slowly gaining traction, as five California prisons were mandated to begin using them in March of this year, Dauphin County Prison in Harrisburg, Pa., began mandating body-worn cameras in June of 2020, and every officer in the Albany County Jail in New York has been mandated to wear body cameras since 2019.
The latest New Jersey bill was inspired by the documented sexual abuse and maltreatment of incarcerated women at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. The disturbing findings were made public last spring, citing that officers coerce prisoners into sexual acts, grope them during strip searches and “routinely” demean them as “b******,” “dykes” and other slurs, NJ.com reports.
Moreover, the Justice Department found that officers were often exchanging contraband with inmates for sexual favors, or using their authority to coerce them against their will — all while supervisors and administrators knew and looked the other way.
Now, with “eyes on” all the time, supporters hope that will put a swift end to prison abuses.
“There seems to be a culture that we’ve seen where there are coverups rather than … accountability,” said Democratic state Assemblyman Raj Mukherji. “We have to send a message that it will be taken seriously.”
Each New Jersey bill will need to pass the full Assembly and Senate in order to head to the governor’s desk, which they are expected to soon.
The body camera mandate is estimated to cost about $26 million to implement, a prison spokeswoman previously said, and while some advocates were initially worried there wasn’t enough money to support the proposal, an updated version of one bill includes new funding for changes, NJ.com details.
Advocates argue that the high cost of transparency shouldn’t be seen as a roadblock, as keeping staff and incarcerated individuals safe and protected should be the utmost priority.
For the Dauphin County Prison in Harrisburg, Pa., outfitting prison guards with Axon cameras cost nearly $565,000 for 125 camera systems, PennLive details.
Even though prison guards in that facility don’t have cameras running constantly, citing battery and storage issues, but the officers are instructed to turn on cameras any time they interact with an inmate, or when a situation is escalating. They’re also mandated to oblige to record if an inmate asks them to, PennLive explains.
“Not many jails are doing this, but Dauphin County is trying to change the narrative in that prison,” Community activist Kevin Maxson, who led protests and meetings to improve conditions at the prison in recent years, said in 2020 when the changes were implemented. “I feel it’s long overdue.”
A California federal judge shared a similar sentiment in March of this year, citing that repeated abuse of inmates with disabilities needs to be tackled aggressively, and with an emphasis on transparency within five prisons, Los Angeles Times reports.
“The Court finds that body cameras are likely to improve investigations of misconduct by staff and to reduce the incidence of violations of disabled inmates’ rights,” U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken wrote in her order. The judge also mandated reforms related to tracking disabled inmates’ complaints and the use of pepper spray.
The ruling to add body cameras came as mounting evidence proved that disabled inmates were being physically assaulted and verbally abused by correctional staff, Los Angeles Times details.
Beyond body cameras, the judge’s order adds that surveillance cameras are required to be installed in housing units, exercise yards, gyms, dining areas, and other public spaces. All video must be stored for 90 days, and Wilken wrote that without surveillance cameras, mistreatment of disabled inmates is “likely to continue.”
Additional Reading: A Mixed Assessment of Police Body Cameras
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.