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Dr. Johanna Foster Appointed to Edna Mahan Board of Trustees

Johanna Foster, Pd.D., Associate Professor of Sociology, the Helen Bennett McMurray Endowed Chair of Social Ethics in the Department of Political Science and Sociology and the President of MU faculty union, FAMCO, was appointed to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women Board of Trustees by Governor Phil Murphy on Wednesday, Feb. 16.

Foster was newly appointed alongside Dr. Amesika Nyaku, Tia Ryans, Bonnie Kerness, La’Nae Grant, Kathleen Witcher, and Dr. Karma Brown Warren, who was reappointed. Together, the members of the Board of Trustees will supervise the operations of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Union Township, New Jersey’s only women’s correctional facility.

“These appointments, combined with the many other reforms and efforts made under our Administration, will effectuate improvement in oversight of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility,” Murphy said in a press release. “These women are all extraordinary individuals in their own fields, and combined, their expertise will benefit women under the care of the State.”

Much of Foster’s research focuses on mass incarceration with an emphasis on women in prisons. She has spent the past 20 years working with incarcerated women to learn more about the mass incarceration crisis in the U.S as it relates to race, class, and gender inequality. In that time, she worked with students at Edna Mahan as a professor in a “college-in-prison” setting, which allowed her to hear the firsthand experiences of hundreds of incarcerated women.

“Having a small window into the realities of life inside our nation’s prison system from the viewpoint of a civilian has taught me that how we organize our criminal-legal system is often totally at odds with basic ethical principles of justice and human decency,” Foster said. “Perhaps the most disturbing example of this at Edna Mahan has been the persistence of systemic rape and sexual assault of residents by correctional employees, a harrowing pattern recently documented by the U.S. Department of Justice.”

In 2018, the Justice Department launched an investigation regarding claims that the constitutional rights of individuals in the facility were being violated. By 2020, it was determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that the facility had failed to protect prisoners from sexual abuse by the staff and discouraged them from reporting instances of sexual abuse. The Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments and guarantees reasonable safety from harm, was found to have been violated at Edna Mahan.

“I think it is fair to say that the most pressing issue for the residents of Edna Mahan is their health and safety, whether that be putting an end, immediately, to gender and sexual violence, or ensuring that residents are fully protected from COVID, and also concerns around the fate of the facility itself following the Governor’s plans to tackle the problematic physical structures of the prison grounds in light of the US DOJ investigations,” explained Foster.

Still, she notes that the immediate challenges at Edna Mahan are embedded in deeper issues faced by incarcerated women across the nation, including mothers attempting to raise their children while in prison, access to gender-responsive healthcare, assistance in finding jobs and housing after prison, and a plethora of other obstacles that disproportionately affect women in prisons.

Foster’s position as a professor at Monmouth University has allowed her to bring lessons about prison reform and the difficulties faced by incarcerated women into the classroom. As a Trustee, she hopes to learn more about the deeper structural and cultural problems from the residents of Edna Mahan in order to implement systemic changes at the prison.

“I see my role more as a conduit, given my years on the inside learning from women students as their professor. I have gotten to know so many good people on the outside dedicated to working with justice-involved women and their families and communities, including many fantastic students and faculty at Monmouth, so being a conduit also means connecting other committed community advocates and experts to the work as well,” she explained.

“There is much to be done to reorganize our criminal-legal system to eliminate gender-based inequalities, and there is no single remedy at hand. But for now, the place to start must be with understanding that the problems will not be solved just by changing the minds of—or replacing—individual people in charge, but also by changing the rules of game too,” said Foster. “As a sociologist, I’m looking forward to being a voice for the importance of changing the systems and not just the people. Hopefully, I can add a gendered systems-level approach that can complement the expertise that our Trustees will bring that I don’t have, such as medical training, and direct service provision, or lived experience as justice-involved women.”

Foster also expressed her approval of the appointment of Tia Ryans, who will also be joining the Board of Trustees. Ryan was one of Foster’s students at Edna Mahan and is the first returning citizen to be appointed to such a position by the Governor.

“It says a lot about Commissioner Kuhn and the Governor that they have included directly-impacted women to the Board, and I take that as a promising sign,” said Foster.

“I commend Governor Murphy and Commissioner Kuhn for their vision in ensuring the voice of those directly impacted by New Jersey’s criminal legal system,” said Ryans for Insider NJ. “It is a historic step as we work to restore dignity and opportunity to the women currently housed at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.”