The state Department of Corrections has reached a tentative consent decree with federal authorities that’ll likely see federal monitors installed at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, Correction Commissioner Marcus Hicks said during a joint hearing of the Assembly Judiciary and Women and Children Committees.
The announcement, just one part of roughly three hours of testimony Hicks gave Thursday, comes after 30 officers at the state’s only women’s prison — about one-tenth of the officers staffed there — were suspended for allegedly beating inmates. Eight officers, including three supervisors, have been criminally charged for allegedly beating inmates during cell extractions on the night of Jan. 11 and the early morning of Jan. 12.
“As part of the DOJ sentencing, there likely will be federal monitors at Edna Mahan,” Hicks said. “And I can tell you that, again, we have been nothing but cooperative with the Department of Justice since the onset of the investigation in 2018, so I am perfectly fine working with DOJ. I have no issue with that whatsoever.”
But that report, which follows a tentative settlement agreement over sexual assaults there between federal authorities and the women’s prison announced last September, is not yet public and won’t be for weeks yet.
Hicks, who appeared before the committee alongside an attorney — something that’s not irregular for this sort of proceeding — declined to comment on the specifics of the agreement. His belief that it would lead to federal monitors, he said, was an inference based on how similar agreements worked in the past.
But that wasn’t enough for some lawmakers.
“One year ago, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division found that the persistent pattern of sexual assault, brutality and abuses at Edna Mahan violated the constitutional rights of inmates,” State Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Paterson) said in a statement. “Yet, nine months later, we still do not have an agreement on the settlement details proposed by the Justice Department. We need reforms now and we clearly cannot count on the Corrections Department to police itself.”
The hearing marks the first time Hicks, an increasingly embattled figure within the Murphy administration, has spoken at length about his department’s handling of abuses at the facility, one with a history of sexual assault that stretches for decades into the past.
The commissioner, who became the department’s chief of staff late into Gov. Chris Christie’s second term and was elevated to its top post by Gov. Phil Murphy, has faced calls to resign from most every member of the State Senate and a smaller number of Assembly members.
On Thursday, lawmakers spent much of their time with Hicks questioning on his oversight of Edna Mahan. The commissioner pointed expansions in video surveillance that should be completed later this year, a proposed program to outfit corrections officers with body cameras and changes in how the department handled accusations of misconduct.
In the past, accusers could be moved to solitary confinement, but changes in state law barred that practice, and they are now transferred to other housing units without having their access to services — phones, for example — cut off.
The hearing largely skirted the most recently reported abuses at the facility. The Jan. 11 and Jan. 12 incidents, during which a group of corrections officers allegedly pepper sprayed then beat an inmate and handcuffed and beat another, were scarcely discussed at the committee hearing because they are the subject of an ongoing criminal probe.
Hicks did say, speaking generally, that department procedure barred nighttime cell extractions, Those incidents occurred late at night and in the wee hours of the morning, ostensibly violating corrections procedures.
Though he has announced charges against eight officers involved in the incidents, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s investigation remains ongoing, as does an independent probe Gov. Phil Murphy tapped former State Comptroller Matt Boxer to conduct.
Murphy has said the latter investigation, which the governor said would be conducted on an expedited basis, has been hampered by the criminal probe.
The governor has so far resisted calls to remove Hicks, preferring to wait until the Boxer report is released, declining at various points to describe his conversations with Hicks or rate his performance as the state’s top prison official.
But, per the commissioner, the governor’s team and Hicks remain in close contact.
“I’m always in contact with the governor’s office as a cabinet member,” he said Thursday. “I’m always in contact with the front office.”
Hicks more than once sought to distance himself from a facility that has now been under his oversight for nearly three years, framing its problems as ones that predated his control of the department.
“I never had operational control of the facilities until I became commissioner in 2018, and so as with anything, the chance to make real reform also lies on the individual who has the authority to enact the change,” he said.
Corrections Ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti also faced fire from the panel of lawmakers, with Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City), the Assembly Judiciary chair, questioning why his office chose to conduct an unannounced inspection on the same day it conducted a planned inspection.
DiBenedetti defended the move, saying officials at the prison were not aware which unit the unannounced inspection would target, flabbergasting lawmakers.
“But they’re prepared you’re coming, right?” Mukherji asked.
“Not necessarily,” the ombudsman said to several seconds of stunned silence.
As mitigation, the ombudsman, who has held the position since 2009, pointed to staff reductions. There are nine staffers under DiBenedetti, down from 16 near the turn of the last decade.
At least one lawmaker, Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Perth Amboy), has called for DiBenedetti to be suspended over a perceived oversight failure.
He faced further scrutiny over his appraisal of conditions at Edna Mahan from Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Wyckoff). Asked whether he believed the prison’s inmates were subjected to intolerable conditions before the most recent abuses, which were first reported by NJ Advance Media, he said no.
“Like I said, the conditions weren’t unacceptable,” DiBenedetti said. “I didn’t believe for them to be unacceptable, no.”
His opinion has since changed.