Rutgers Law School students in Newark were among those who played a crucial role in a $20.8 million settlement providing compensation to women who recently served time at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, where a systemic culture of abuse has been well documented. Students worked directly with claimants who served time in New Jersey’s only women’s state prison.

The facility was the subject of a scathing federal report published in 2020, which found the sexual abuse of inmates to be an “open secret” among staff, current and incarcerees. Those who reported such abuse were removed from their cells and placed in isolation as a matter of policy – seen as punishment for speaking out. Rampant sexual misconduct, assault, and abuse by corrections officers and staff over decades have yielded civil lawsuits and criminal convictions alike.

In the wake of this pattern of harassment and abuse, the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) settled a class action lawsuit, allowing any woman imprisoned for one or more days since January 1, 2014, to file for financial compensation between $1,000 and $250,000 (as long as they never filed a previous claim related to sexual misconduct or a hostile environment at the facility).

The experience gave students a window into what it is like to work with clients.

“I learned what social change through litigation looks like,” says Crystal Mor Henwood, a third year law student in Newark, “and that includes the pros as well as the cons.” While the financial benefit for claimants is clear, Henwood says that for some women, telling their story and having it affirmed by the court also provided a measure of healing. “It took real bravery by the women to share their stories after years of being silenced,” Henwood says. “After all, reliving trauma can be an emotionally risky journey, and the fact that the prison remains open is deeply disturbing.”

The settlement created a significant task to find, interview, and file claims for the hundreds of current and former inmates eligible for compensation – a difficult and emotional role undertaken by Rutgers Law students in partnership with Seton Hall Law.

“It was extraordinarily traumatic for the women to relive their experiences in the prison, as well as the underlying assaults many of them had experienced throughout their lives,” says Chelsea Fadio, a third year Rutgers Law student in Camden.

“Being able to advocate for these women and make sure their stories were heard was really the most important aspect for me. This was about more than just enhancing my law school experience. This was about enabling women who have been overlooked and disenfranchised to have their voices and stories heard,” says Fadio.

Rutgers Law’s involvement began when plaintiffs’ counsel Oliver Barry, a 2013 law school graduate, approached Associate Dean of Pro Bono and Public Interest Jill Friedman to see if students could assist claimants in completing the affidavits they’d need to file to receive funds.

“As soon as Oliver and I agreed to do the project, we immediately brought in Seton Hall Law School to make this a statewide effort,” Friedman says. “We were incredibly proud to collaborate with them. They jumped on board immediately and enthusiastically and handled almost all the administration of the project. And their students were fantastic.” Ultimately, the project enlisted 15 students from each of the law schools.

Students received an intensive training that covered the details of the settlement, their expected duties, and trauma-informed lawyering techniques. They were then assigned claimants to interview and assist. Students worked in pairs, along with a supervising attorney, to collect as much information as they could about each claimant’s story. They drafted affidavits, obtained supporting documents, including medical and court records, and offered emotional support – sometimes checking in with claimants every day or multiple times a day leading up to their hearings.

Though Friedman didn’t initially envision that the law students would also advocate for the women at their hearings, this became an integral part of their involvement. Students and a supervising attorney accompanied clients on Zoom to provide support, guide them through the telling of their story, and ensure every point was made as clearly as possible to get the best result in front of the Special Master. In the end, students participated in about 100 hearings. “I can’t rate the students high enough,” says claimant Kim Brewer, who worked with Rutgers Law students to file a claim. “They walked me through everything and helped me feel comfortable even when discussing things that are very uncomfortable to speak about.”

Working on the settlement also provided a unique opportunity for students from Seton Hall and Rutgers to meet and serve together, says Lori Outzs Borgen, director of the Center for Social Justice at Seton Hall Law. “They will soon be members of the same bar. Through the Edna Mahan Pro Bono Project, they had a chance to build their professional relationships now with other aspiring attorneys who share their commitment to social justice." Plus, students had the opportunity to learn practical skills, like navigating the subtleties of Zoom courtroom decorum and interfacing with different types of clients.

While the hearings might be over, the work is far from done. The facility remains open with no proposed closure date after NJ Governor Phil Murphy ordered it to close. In addition, many claimants require additional resources, from mental and physical health services to financial training, housing, and substance use treatment. A free financial training program for the women begins on January 25 with a macro level view of personal finance. It will be moderated by Tia Ryans, a 2019 Rutgers-Newark graduate, founder of F.O.R.T.E. House (Forcing Out Recidivism Through Education), and Chair of the EMCF Advisory Board. Ryans was formerly incarcerated at EMCF. Following the workshop, survivors can sign up for personal consultations to address their individual needs. 

“The settlement money alone does not fix the issue,” says Fadio. “It has brought the injustices to light, but it doesn’t right the wrongs that have been done.”