After Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks was forced out of his position over violent cell extractions conducted in the dead of night at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, Victoria Kuhn, his chief of staff, took helm of the agency.
But her proximity to Hicks and the absence of any sort of legislative review has left some lawmakers with their concerns over the state’s only women’s prison intact.
“This isn’t your ordinary resignation and replace someone by second in command,” said Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton). “She was there the whole time all these horrible things happened. It doesn’t inspire trust that there’s going to be real change.”
Stanfield, a first term assemblywoman now seeking State Sen. Dawn Addiego’s (D-Evesham) seat in the upper chamber, was among the loudest voices calling for Hicks’ removal. She introduced a resolution to impeach the former commissioner, though it never saw movement.
Her worries over the new leadership at the Department of Corrections come with some caveats. The assemblywoman acknowledged Kuhn’s experience wasn’t a source of worry. Before she joined state government, she was an assistant Cumberland County prosecutor and deputy attorney general. She once served as director of New Jersey’s Equal Employment Division and the Office of Employee Relations.
“Granted, she’s got a great resume, but at the same time, we don’t know how involved she was, how much she knew, what she could have done to stop some of these horrific things that have happened,” Stanfield said.
A spokesperson for the governor deferred to comments he made last month, when he called Kuhn “an outstanding public servant” and said she was “in this line of business for the right reason.”
Given that Kuhn is in her position on a temporary basis while the administration conducts a nationwide search for a new prisons chief, she hasn’t come before lawmakers to discuss her plans for the agency.
That’s not unprecedented, nor is it even unusual. Acting Commissioner of Human Services Sarah Adelman, Acting Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness Director Laurie Doran are in the same position. First Assistant Attorney General Andrew Bruck will join their ranks later this month, when Attorney General Gurbir Grewal leaves for a post at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But Stanfield believes the circumstances at Edna Mahan, where 10 guards have been charged for severely beating inmates and which the state is moving to shut down, merit greater scrutiny.
“We saw in January how one night could be so significant, and here we’re talking about four months,” she said. “We don’t have confidence in the oversight is the best way to put it. I don’t think we should take this acting role for granted, especially when it’s under these circumstances when there’s been so much pain and suffering.”
The acting commissioner isn’t likely to see any such review. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) have said the Senate has no plans to return before the election.
It’s unclear whether Murphy will appoint a more permanent successor ahead of November. It’s not even clear whether the search for one has started.