NJ DOC commissioner ‘disgusted’ by Edna Mahan abuses in public hearings, promises reform process has begun

New Jersey

New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks (Photo: NJ DOC)

TRENTON, N.J. — Embattled New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks testified before the New Jersey Assembly and Senate Thursday to discuss abuses of inmates at the state’s lone women’s prison.

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.

“I share in your disgust and disappointment for the incidents of Jan. 11,” Hicks said in his opening statement. “Several women were brutally attacked by employees who proactively chose to disregard established protocol and practices that are necessary for proper cell extractions, de-escalation, and searches. These employees violated the trust and safety of those in our care and the faith we put in them as public servants.”

Hicks cited his department’s immediate cooperation with the county prosecutors and state attorney general for criminal investigation. He said his goal is ushering in a new era in corrections with safety and rehabilitation at its core to maintain safety within our facilities.

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.

The commissioner, who has faced calls for either his firing or resignation from every member of the New Jersey Senate and Assembly, said that he finally has the ability to make what he says are real changes to address the issues going on at the prison.

“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.

Hicks also mentioned that state legislators will be taking a tour of Edna Mahan Correctional Facility on April 19.

The main changes Hicks highlighted were what he called “situational, thorough and progressive” training going from smaller disciplinary matter to larger ones, with persistent infringement leading to re-training and or removal from the prison. Also, the department is beginning an “early warning system” that allows administrators to receive notification of staff experience work-related and potentially wellness-related issues.

Hicks promised zero tolerance for the kind of abuses alleged from January 11, with those criminally charged no longer being paid by the department. He promised that all 5,200 staffers have been trained in the prevention of sexual misconduct, non-fraternization and manipulation, as well as gender-informed training for custody and civilian staff. There have also been increased mental health resources, social services and religious services made available to those at Edna Mahan.

“My administration has worked incredibly hard to develop these programs and implement safety
reforms,” Hicks said. “Despite this progress, we are here in large part because of an abhorrent incident that violates every aspect of the department’s mission and commitment to operate safe, secure, and humane facilities for New Jersey’s offenders.”

Hicks also committed to further increasing female leadership when it comes to both the department and specifically at Edna Mahan, and increased policies that follow the mandates of the Prison Rape Enforcement Act (PREA), a law designed to protect inmates from sexual abuse, calling it a “plague” within the department. In addition to the PREA enhancements, the Safe Taskforce established child-friendly visit and play areas to foster positive child-parent bonding, expanded visiting hours, and offered increased education and counseling modules focused on activity and nutrition, medical and mental wellness.

He also claimed that the department was in compliance with all legislative policies mandated in recent years.

As far as security at Edna Mahan goes, Hicks reiterated the department’s commitment to a new body-worn camera pilot program, as well as adding staff to the second shift, more site visits and tours, establishment of a Use of Force committee and updating the Hunterdon County prison’s camera system.

Hicks claimed to be communicating in good faith and asked for the same in return from the legislature.

“As I sit here today, I reaffirm my position that my administration is ushering in a new era in
corrections,” he said to finish his statement. “Change is coming slowly but surely, as these things take time. Shifting culture takes time. My administration is up to the challenge. It’s the right team for the job with individuals who operate with integrity and passion for our mission.”

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.”

On Thursday, State Senate Democrats continued to hammer away at Hicks and demanded further answers regarding the $20 million settlements reached Wednesday.

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. “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.”

In a statement provided to PIX11 News by the joint counsel for the plaintiffs in the suits, the breakdown of the settlements goes as such:

  • $20,835,600 total proposed settlement amount;
  • $9,850,000 allocated to victims of sexual assault with previously filed claims;
  • $7,985,600 allocated for the class of women incarcerated at the prison from 2014 through to the present who were subjected to the environment of abuse or suffered direct harassment or assault with the class separated into three tiers by severity and overseen by a special master;
  • Class action legal fees as determined by the court– representing legal work by the four plaintiffs’ law firms related to the class damages and injunctive relief.
  • Body-worn-cameras to be implemented for use by all corrections officers at  EMCFW with regular inmate contact within a year of the date of the agreement;
  • Further injunctive relief sought by both plaintiffs and the Department of Justice to be addressed by Consent Decree with Department of Justice.

Hearings continued well into the evening hours Thursday in Trenton.

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