State senator calls for corrections head to be fired following abuse allegations at women's prison
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg is demanding that state Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks be fired by the end of the week after 30 staff members were suspended at the Edna Mahan Correctional Institute for Women in Hunterdon County.
“Time to stop. Time for the governor to act. Period,” Weinberg says. “This is not such a hidden secret. It is time for it to end.
The call for Hicks to be fired comes as new abuse allegations at the prison have surfaced.
“How can we abandon this group of women who are now under the aegis of a group of so-called ‘corrections officers’ where they can be raped, they can be beaten, and if they speak up, there are ways they can be retaliated against? That is horror,” Weinberg says.
PBA Local 105 is the union that represents correctional police officers in the state. President Bill Sullivan said that 20 officers and 10 supervisors at the prison were suspended with pay after a forced cell extraction on Jan. 11. Sullivan said the removal of two or three inmates came after the women were throwing feces earlier in the day.
Sullivan also said in a statement, “(The commissioner) has been fair and communicative with the union. I don’t think anything he could have done would have altered the situation.”
But Weinberg says that abuse at the prison has been known for a while.
“So disturbing, because it wasn’t a hidden secret. It was out there; the Department of Justice was involved,” Weinberg says.
In April, the Department of Justice released a report on numerous civil rights violations at Edna Mahan, saying there was a “culture of acceptance” of sex assault. Sullivan said there have been reforms since then, but Weinberg said the Murphy administration has not gone far enough.
“This is the 21st century. I know there’s a pandemic. I know that’s the overriding issue that’s affecting people in especially in New Jersey, but this is an issue that the governor’s office needs to get solved and they need to get it solved very quickly,” the senator says.
The Department of Corrections said on Monday that it is investigating the Jan. 11 incident with the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office.
A spokesperson says in a statement, "The Department is fully aware of the allegations of use of force, and will not tolerate such behavior. The Department immediately opened an investigation wherein NJDOC investigators are working closely with the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office and Division of Criminal Justice to investigate and review. NJDOC cannot comment on the details while investigations are still pending. However, subsequent to the criminal investigation, NJDOC may conduct its own administrative investigation and take appropriate action to hold people accountable. The health, safety and wellbeing of those entrusted to the confinement and care of the NJDOC is of paramount importance. If wrongdoing is found, the Department shall address it in an expeditious and appropriate manner, as inappropriate use of force shall neither be tolerated nor condoned.
As an aside, the Commissioner has taken a number of steps to change the culture at Edna. As part of his first order of business, he has placed a number of provisions to increase, security, safety, education, oversight and reporting, including an enhanced multimillion-dollar camera project which is on track for deployment around April and a body-worn camera pilot program. The Commissioner has also taken swift action to remove bad actors when issues arise and is in the process of collaborating with the DOJ on an appropriate resolution to their report findings. Along these lines, the Department implemented a Use of Force Committee to review investigations post-mortem and provide recommendation for Department-issued remedial action and is implementing the recommendations of the OAG as it pertains to use of force. Additionally, the Department has retained a renowned correctional consultant to provide third-party technical support in policy development and validation to ensure compliance with the upcoming DOJ/NJDOC agreed-upon recommendation implementation and is actively recruiting an Assistant Commissioner of Women's Services, that reports directly into him, tasked with ensuring the needs of the female population are met by providing operational oversight of the management of female offenders, assisting with the implementation of DOJ settlement recommendations and coordinating efforts with the consultant. This role is tasked with developing gender-responsible correctional management and operational practices consistent with national best-practice. Placing the Commissioner on leave would only stand to stall this progress."
A spokesperson for the Murphy administration says in a statement, “It would be an understatement to say that the recent allegations of excessive use of force at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility are extremely disturbing. Gov.Murphy is aware that Commissioner Hicks has already taken action to place certain employees on leave, pending further investigation, and is relieved that steps are being taken to address this incident. In no uncertain terms, the Governor believes that those who mistreat individuals in state custody must be held fully accountable. Governor Murphy is committed to getting to the bottom of what happened here and he supports Commissioner Hicks’s ongoing initiatives to promote greater inmate safety, increased transparency, and to hold the facility’s staff to the highest standard of professionalism.”