TRENTON, N.J. — Ahead of embattled Commissioner Marcus Hicks’ testimony before the New Jersey State Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, the New Jersey Department of Corrections announced that they’ll be testing out body cameras at the state’s lone women’s prison where several officers have recently been accused of abuse by the state’s attorney general.
The state’s corrections department says the program’s been in the works since May 2020, when they were given a $250,000 grant from the department of justice in Washington. They announced Tuesday that they’ve received their initial allotment of body-worn cameras and will launch the program at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County and at Northern State Prison in Newark.
“The NJDOC partnered with the Department of Justice in 2019 to establish the body-worn camera initiative, and it is finally reaching the ability to go live and offer greater oversight, accountability, and security of our facilities,” said Commissioner Hicks. “The body-worn camera program complements our existing camera surveillance program by serving as a deterrent of inappropriate behavior increasing the safety of the incarcerated population and staff, while supporting reductions in allegations of misconduct, use of force, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) the law designed to prevent, detect and respond to incidences of sexual abuse and harassment in confinement.”
The funds from the DOJ will also, according to the NJ DOC, support developing DOJ-approved policies and related training. If the program is a success, the state plans to use the program at other facilities. The state says that the program goes along with the their hiring of consulting firm The Moss Group in an attempt to find solutions specifically related to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.
State Sen. Kristin Corrado, a Republican and a member of the State Senate Judiciary Committee who will hear Hicks’ testimony tomorrow, 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.”
This comes after a total of eight correction officers at that facility have been charged with abuses stemming from the same January incident. According to a state investigation, between approximately 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 11 and 1:15 a.m. on Jan. 12, a number of DOC officers and supervisors assigned to the facility conducted forced cell extractions of inmates located in the Restorative Housing Unit (RHU) complex.
During the extraction, an officer who was later charged by the state struck a victim in the face with a closed fist approximately 28 times, despite the victim not resisting. The victim’s injuries included a concussion.
“We’ve now charged eight officers in these brutal attacks at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, and we continue to pursue all evidence and leads in our ongoing investigation,” said Attorney General Grewal. “I promised to hold everyone accountable who played a role in this horrific incident, at any level of the prison’s hierarchy, and we’re working hard to meet that promise.”
The charges carry a sentence of 5-10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000. The misconduct charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison without possibility of parole. The aggravated assault charge carries a mandatory term of parole ineligibility equal to 85 percent of the sentence imposed.
Grewal said when the first three officers were charged that prosecutors found that guards tried to cover up an attack at the Mahan Facility by filing false reports, though not all officers have been charged in the cover-up.
These charges continue to come in as pressure has mounted on New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks. Hicks is scheduled to testify at hearings in the state legislature in Trenton on Thursday.
Dozens of corrections officers at the Clinton prison — New Jersey’s only women’s prison — were placed on paid leave in January, following allegations that staff brutally beat and sexually assaulted inmates there.
One woman, Ajila Nelson, told NJ.com that officers on Jan. 11 handcuffed her and others, before punching, kicking, stripping and dragging her to a shower, after which she said an unidentified male officer got on top of her and groped and sexually assaulted her.
A transgender woman incarcerated at the facility was beaten by a group of officers and three officers stomped on her head, her mother, Trimeka Rollins, told the newspaper. Her daughter’s knee was so badly damaged that she’s now using a wheelchair, Rollins said. The woman filed a lawsuit in state superior court in March.
The Democrat-led State Senate passed the bipartisan resolution for Hicks to either resign or have Murphy fire him 35-0 in February. The resolution also calledon Murphy to transfer inmates to a safe facility and demands the Department of Corrections comply with the recommendations of the US Department of Justice which were issued more than six months ago.
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.
Murphy, who described the officers’ actions as abhorrent and a violation of public trust in a statement, has continued to insist 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.”
Hicks, rather than resign, announced the hiring of the aforementioned Moss Group to assist with planned reforms. 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.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin is calling for Hicks to provide answers at the hearing.
“I am extremely disturbed about the continued allegations of abuse at Edna Mahan,” Coughlin said. “A pattern appears to have developed at the facility, which raises the question of whether those supervising the prison are not doing nearly enough to protect its vulnerable inmates. We need answers and we need reform.”
For Corrado, these reforms are a failed attempt to show that something is being done ahead of these hearings.
“He’s rolling out this symbolic reform in advance of a legislative hearing,” she said. “It is one small step when a giant leap is called for. It hardly makes up for a year of inaction.”