TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey legislators left an eight-hour hearing Thursday on the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility — the state’s lone women’s prison with a rife history of abuse — resolute that more needed to be done, while the state’s Republicans continued to call for the embattled department of corrections commissioner to resign.
Though the abuses at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Hunterdon County stem back to at least 2014 — and the state just Wednesday settled for nearly $21 million on at least 20 lawsuits with inmates who claimed to be victims of sexual assault and misconduct — these hearings were largely meant to focus on a January incident where several inmates accused multiple correction officers of abuse. Over 30 officials were placed on paid leave and eight have been charged by the state’s attorney general.
New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks testified before the New Jersey Assembly’s Judiciary Committee and Women and Children Committee Thursday to discuss abuses of inmates at the state’s lone women’s prison. Experts, Corrections Ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti and people who had been incarcerated at the Hunterdon County facility also testified.
Though previously both the state senate and assembly had unanimously passed resolutions demanding Hicks resign or be fired by Gov. Murphy, Hicks continued to insist reform was taking place at Mahan.
“Together with my team, and input from stakeholders, advocates and the legislature, we’ve made considerable strides to implement creative and sustainable solutions benefitting the incarcerated population and increased transparency around our efforts, positioning New Jersey as a leader in the corrections space,” he said.
The four Republicans on the assembly panel — Aura Dunn, Nancy Munoz, Bob Auth and Christopher DePhillips — want both Hicks and Corrections Ombudsmen Dan DiBenedetti to be ousted from their positions as part of a top-to-bottom change.
“We are disgusted that Gov. Murphy has failed to take any sort of action,” they said in a statement. “There is a complete lack of leadership from the top of the department of corrections that trickles down to the intolerable operations at the Edna Mahan women’s prison which requires a new commissioner and ombudsman immediately.”
Gov. Phil Murphy has stood by Hicks for the time being and named former state comptroller Matt Boxer as an independent investigator into the allegations. No timetable has been given in terms of when that report will be delivered.
Murphy, who described the officers’ actions as abhorrent and a violation of public trust in a statement, has insisted the state would hold anyone responsible to account.
“I understand from the attorney general’s announcement that the criminal investigation is ongoing, and I am confident that anyone who violated the law will be held accountable. Beyond the criminal investigation, we must have a full accounting of how this incident was able to happen so that we can put in place necessary reforms and safeguards. I am thankful to former State Comptroller Matt Boxer for taking on this crucial task.”
Spokespersons for Gov. Murphy have not yet responded to PIX11 News’ request for comment.
For Dunn, Munoz, Auth and DePhillips, citing the “alarming systemic issues” at Mahan, time is up.
“It is clear to us the cancer has metastasized and the decades long damage can only be reversed by a complete change,” they added. “Everyone has to go. The time for delay and investigation has passed.”
The nearly $21 million settlement included a stipulation that body-worn-cameras to be implemented for use by all corrections officers within a year of the agreement’s approval. The state has already begun a pilot program at both Edna Mahan and Northern State Prison in Newark.
State Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Sens. Linda Greenstein, Nellie Pou and Dawn Addiego want the release of details on the settlements reached with current or former inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women who filed civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault, beatings and abuse at the state women’s prison.
“The Administration’s need to pay $21 million to settle civil lawsuits stemming from sexual assaults, beatings, brutality and misconduct by corrections officers at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women from 2014 to the present is just further evidence of an institution in crisis where a culture of abuse has been allowed to fester for years,” said Sen. Weinberg in a statement ahead of Thursday’s testimony. “We are anxiously awaiting the results of the investigation commissioned by the governor’s office. This large settlement looks like it could be the first result.”
State Sen. Kristin Corrado, a Republican and a member of the State Senate Judiciary Committee, continued her calls for Hicks to resign and called these reforms “a Band-Aid.”
“Dozens of helpless female inmates were assaulted, more than 30 guards and employees were suspended, the feds are investigating, and the best the DOC can come up with are some body cameras,” said Sen. Corrado in a statement. “The Corrections Commissioner dropped the ball and he must be held accountable. These are leadership shortcomings people have discussed for more than a year, and cameras don’t address the problem.”
The chairpersons of the judiciary and women and children’s committees, Assemblymembers Raj Mukherji and Gabriela Mosquera, avoided mentioning Hicks but criticized DiBenedetti in one statement following the hearing but continued the call for reform.
“While the department of corrections appears to have made progress in implementing remedial measures and the Dignity Act – and a consent decree and federal monitors are imminent – we also learned that the ombudsperson has not seized upon the opportunity to use last year’s robust legislative reforms to effectuate dynamic change and, worse yet, has been derelict in his duty,” Mukherji said. “Outside of the committee process, we will continue to interview subject matter experts and fact witnesses alike, including those with firsthand knowledge of the depravities and goings-on at the facility.”
Legislators are scheduled to take a tour of Edna Mahan Correctional Facility on April 19 with Commissioner Hicks.
“Our state has failed to protect these women,” added Mukherji. “There is a culture of impunity at Edna Mahan, when there needs to be a culture of accountability.”
Assemblywoman Angela McKnight said that change must come as soon as possible.
“After hours of testimony, which I thank all for sharing their stories and expertise, we have heard in-depth about the inhumane and degrading culture of this facility, it’s horrifying,” McKnight said in a statement. “I am severely disappointed in the operation of this prison. This should not happen in our state.”
Along with the legal settlements and reforms, Hicks mentiond that the NJ DOC has struck an agreement on a consent decree with the department of justice in Washington regarding a report they filed on Edna Mahan in April of 2020. The agreement is awaiting final approval in Washington, according to Hicks, and no details were made available.
Hicks, rather than resign, announced the hiring of the aforementioned Moss Group to assist with planned reforms in February. The firm’s goal is to “provide technical support in operational practice, policy development and implementation of identified solutions related to Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.” The state is also actively recruiting an assistant commissioner to handle women’s services within the state prison system.
The state’s DOC, in a statement to PIX11 News back in February, believe the Moss Group’s implementation of these reforms are necessary now and that removal of Commissioner Hicks would “only serve to stall this process.”