TRENTON, N.J. – Scandal-plagued N.J. Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks finally resigned Tuesday after months of bipartisan demands for his firing were ignored by Gov. Phil Murphy. His resignation comes after a damning 75-page investigation released Monday that detailed a broken system of abuses at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women under his and the governor’s watch.
Gov. Murphy announced Monday his plans to close the state’s only women’s prison and move its inmates to other facilities.
“Could Jan. 11 have turned out differently for everyone if the governor acted with humility and simply admitted Hicks wasn’t a good fit for the commissioner’s job? He had misplaced faith about Hicks’ ability to make needed reforms at Edna Mahan,” Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union) said. “The longer he delayed the inevitable, that he fire Hicks, the worse the situation got.”
The Murphy administration tapped former N.J. State Comptroller and federal prosecutor Matt Boxer of Lowenstein Sandler LLP to independently investigate the conditions and events that lead to corrections officers forcibly removing from their cells and beating inmates at Edna Mahan Jan. 11, 2021. Boxer’s team poured through thousands of pages of documents and interviewed key players about prison culture and conditions. Ultimately, his team found that unclear protocols, lack of transparency, and gaps in leadership among other issues created the perfect storm for that night’s incidents.
“It’s a sad testament to Gov. Murphy’s weak leadership that Marcus Hicks hung on as long as he did,” Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-Bergen) said. “I’m pleased that Hicks finally did the right thing by resigning, but I’m left to wonder if the events of Jan. 11 could have been avoided if the governor acted in best interest of everyone involved to begin with.”
Thirty-four corrections facility staff were suspended. Ten officers were indicted on charges ranging from assault to official misconduct. At least two prisoners were injured during the forced cell extractions Jan. 11.
But the correctional facility has been the target of criticism for years, with reports of rampant abuse, assaults and rapes touched upon in the Lowenstein Sandler report but detailed in an April 2020 investigation by the Department of Justice. The DOJ report went to so far as to say Edna Mahan “violates the constitutional rights of prisoners in its care, resulting in serious harm and the substantial risk of serious harm.”
Both reports slam the administration for failing to follow even the most modest of reforms, such as installing and upgrading security cameras throughout the facilities, requiring officers to wear body cameras, ensuring proper training of staff dealing with a volatile population, and creating written protocols to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications.
The Lowenstein Sandler report also called for independent oversight of Edna Mahan. Legislators agreed and have also expressed concerns that promoting from within will only perpetuate the systemic abuse uncovered by the legislature and outside investigators.
“Did we need to wait for this latest report to know that Hick’s tenure has been a disaster from the start? In a rare show of bipartisanship, this Legislature for months has demanded Murphy fire Hicks. And the best he could do was announce he’s closing the prison?” Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Bergen) said. “It’s like fixing car engine problems with a wash and wax. Everyone needs to go.”
New Jersey Globe reported current N.J. Department of Corrections Chief of Staff Victoria Kuhn, Esq. will replace Hicks, who was with the department since 2007. He was elevated to acting commissioner under Murphy in 2018.
In the meantime, legislators are still waiting for Gov. Murphy to announce another replacement, this for state corrections ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti. As ombudsman, DiBenedetti was tasked with investigating abuses in prisons throughout the state. In testimony he provided April 8, 2021, during hearings of the Assembly’s Women and Children and Judiciary committees, he admitted that he not only had never recommended policies for Edna Mahan since being in office since 2009, but had not visited the prison in more than a year.
“Yes, these women owe a debt to society. They are not in prison for being model citizens. But no woman should go to sleep wondering if she will be raped or beaten that night. Our Constitution ensures everyone is protected from cruel and unusual punishment,” Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R-Morris) said. “Gov. Murphy has expressed elsewhere that he doesn’t take the Bill of Rights into consideration when making decisions. Maybe he can start with this.”