TRENTON, N.J. — Ahead of department Commissioner Marcus Hicks testifying before the New Jersey State Senate and Assembly Thursday, the New Jersey Department of Corrections settled 22 civil litigations against the department regarding allegations of sexual abuse and harassment at the troubled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women that have been pending since 2017.
The settlements total in over $20.8 million in damages and attorney fees. The suits include 20 individual complaints and two class action suits filed against the NJ DOC since 2014 who claim to have been direct victims of sexual abuse, harassment or retaliation. The victims were either directly impacted by sexual misconduct or who were incarcerated in the facility between 2014 and the date of court approval of the settlement, which is still pending.
“As the Department seeks resolution on this matter, which covers claims from inmates at EMCFW from 2014-present, this administration, under my leadership, reaffirms its commitment to operating safe and humane facilities,” said New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks. “My administration is ushering in a new era in corrections, with safety and rehabilitation at its core. We’ve put in place various safety reforms to address concerns that have been ongoing and long before our administration, including the recent body-worn camera project increasing oversight and accountability while reducing allegations to maintain safety within our facilities.”
The settlement also confirms that the NJ DOC will institute a system of body cameras to be worn by staff who regular come into contact with inmates.
“[T]he settlement was reached as a result of protracted, difficult, but respectful negotiations and is among the most significant in the history of New Jersey corrections reform and that the economic and non-economic provisions are significant and will have immediate positive impacts on improving conditions throughout the institution and give the plaintiffs the opportunity to turn the page on this difficult chapter,” said the counselors for the plaintiffs in a joint statement Wednesday.
This resolution also comes ahead of Commissioner Hicks’ scheduled testimony at committee hearings at both the state senate and assembly on Thursday to discuss historic abuses at Edna Mahan but also a January incident which left dozens of officials on paid leave and has so far resulted in eight officers being charged by the state’s attorney general.
The Democrat-led State Senate passed a bipartisan resolution for Hicks to either resign or have New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy fire him 35-0 in February. The resolution also called on 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.”
For State Sen. Kristin Corrado, a member of the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee, 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 in a statement Wednesday. “It is one small step when a giant leap is called for. It hardly makes up for a year of inaction.”