TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey taxpayers are on the hook for about $1.3 million dollars in fees to a criminal justice consultant to help the Department of Corrections amid a criminal investigation into what the attorney general said was a “brutal attack” on inmates at the state’s only women’s prison.
That’s according to legislative budget documents that recently became available.
The department announced in February that it had hired the Moss Group as a consultant to provide technical support, policy development and other advice at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County.
The cost of the agreement wasn’t announced at that time, but legislative budget documents show the cost of the two-year deal will tally about $1.3 million.
Sen. Kristin Corrado, the ranking Republican on the State Senate Judiciary Committee, was not pleased.
“It’s yet another example of New Jersey taxpayers having to shell out millions of dollars to address the mismanagement of the Murphy administration,” she said in a statement.
A request for comment was sent to Gov. Murphy’s office, as well as the Democratic members of both chambers of the state legislators.
State Sen. Dawn Addiego in a Senate hearing Monday continued the call for Hicks to resign.
“My Senate colleagues and I have been clear since news broke of the Jan. 11 attack at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility,” she said. “For the last 106 days, our demand has remained the same: Commissioner Hicks needs to resign immediately or be terminated by the Governor. It is evident he has been unable to address the cultural and institutional issues at the facility, let alone protect the health and well-being of the women being held there.”
Jack Ciattarelli, one of the frontrunning candidates for the GOP nomination to run against Murphy in November, was highly critical of the governor as well.
“Women are being brutalized in Phil Murphy’s correctional facility, yet he has stood by for months and, once again, failed victims to protect the powerful men in his administration,” Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman, said in a statement. “New Jersey doesn’t need another ‘consultant’ being paid millions in taxpayer funded fees. We need a leader who takes responsibility.”
A total of 10 officers have been charged in the most recent incident at Edna Mahan, which occurred in the late night hours between Jan. 11 and 12, according to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.
Between approximately 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 11 and 1:15 a.m. on Jan. 12, New Jersey DOC officers and supervisors assigned to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton conducted forced cell extractions of inmates located in the Restorative Housing Unit complex.
These are the latest arrests in an investigation that has seem the state’s Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks come under fire. Edna Mahan has a long history of abusive conduct by officers, with the state settling for just over $20 million with over 20 victims dating back to 2014 earlier in April.
These new abuses have only left more controversy at the facility and within state corrections.
“I share in your disgust and disappointment for the incidents of Jan. 11,” Hicks said in his opening statement to state legislators at a hearing on April 8. “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.”
New Jersey Department of Corrections Ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti announced his resignation effective Aug. 1 on April 9 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 after the hearings, in which he admitted to not having been to Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in over a year and could not name a policy proposal he had come up with to fix the problems.
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.
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.
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.”
The next day, however, DiBenedetti had resigned and lawmakers were still calling for Hicks’ removal.