TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Department of Corrections Ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti announced his resignation effective Aug. 1 on Friday after tense hearings in front of the state assembly’s judiciary and women & children committees just a day before.
Several state politicians had called for DiBenedetti’s resignation Thursday after the hearings, in which he admitted to not having been to Edna Mahan Correctional Facility — the state’s lone women’s prison where a Jan. 11 incident caused over 30 officials to be placed on leave and eight to be charged by the state’s attorney general with abuses and cover-up allegations — in over a year.
DiBenedetti also was unable to name a single policy recommendation he’d made regarding the prison, which recently settled over 20 lawsuits for just over $21 million to victims who claimed to suffer sexual abuse at the facility dating back to 2014, in his 12 years of service to the New Jersey DOC. You can rewatch the hearings here.
A spokesperson for Gov. Murphy confirmed DiBenedetti would resign in August, but made no further comment.
State Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, a Democrat, said that the department and DiBenedetti were not living up to its expectations or the authority with which it has been vested.
“The Office of the Corrections Ombudsman, buttressed by the Dignity Act, is a body designed to specifically act as an impartial ally for the prisoner community at large,” said Lopez in a statement. “It is granted with the powers to investigate and resolve all manners of complaints. Based on yesterday’s hearing, it’s clear the issues of abuse are historic, systemic and urgent, warranting our immediate attention to ensure prisoners are protected and guaranteed a rehabilitative prison experience.”
A new law passed in August establishing the ombudsman’s office some of the strongest legal authority in the nation. Lopez, who co-sponsored the assembly version of the bill, said that DiBenedetti’s replacement would be called to wield those powers responsibly.
“I look forward to working with new leadership to realize the full potential of the Office of the Corrections Ombudsman,” Lopez said. “I stand with prisoners, advocates, survivors and the formerly incarcerated in seeing the opportunity a renewed office can bring to enact transformative change. Our work is still not done, but with new leadership and perspective in the Office of the Corrections Ombudsman, we are one step closer to changing the culture of abuse and ensuring our prisoners are treated with dignity and respect.”
For New Jersey’s Republican legislators, they’re glad to see DiBenedetti go, but continue to turn their ire toward Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks.
“That’s a start, but it’s not the resignation we need to restore decency and responsiveness to the DOC,” said Sen. Kristin Corrado, a member of the senate’s judiciary committee. “As we learn more about the deplorable environment at the Edna Mahan facility, it becomes more disturbing that the commissioner has failed to demonstrate capable leadership. There is no justification for what has transpired at the prison, no defense for allowing the abusive conduct to persist, and no excuse for Hicks remaining in a position that he clearly is not capable of handling.”
Sen. Holly Shepisi called Hicks’ inaction on the abuses at the Hunterdon County facility inexcusable.
“We have learned of a lengthy list of allegations, from physical abuse, sexual abuse, and harassment,” said Sen. Shepisi. “Inmates have been stripped of their civil rights and their dignity by some out-of-control correction officers with no fear of reprisal. Authority has run amok in the facility, and Hicks has stood by silently and watched it happen.”
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.
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.”
Legislators are scheduled to take a tour of Edna Mahan Correctional Facility on April 19 with Commissioner Hicks.
The nearly $21 million settlement with the victims dating back to 2014 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.
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.”
Hicks’ testimony reiterated a promise that reforms had begun and promised to work in good faith with legislators to bring change.
The New Jersey DOC declined PIX11 News’ request for comment regarding DiBenedetti’s resignation.