Lawmaker calls on Murphy to invoke emergency powers to stop abuses at NJ women’s prison

Lawmaker calls on Murphy to invoke emergency powers to stop abuses at NJ women’s prison

BettyLou DeCroce

TRENTON, N.J. – Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce called on Gov. Phil Murphy Sunday to invoke his emergency powers to stop the abuses at the embattled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison.

“It will take extraordinary action to get this embarrassing mayhem under control and Governor Murphy should use his strongest tool to get it done,” said DeCroce (R-Morris). “It’s unacceptable how slow change is taking even when being pushed. I’m most frustrated because every legislator I’ve spoken with wants to do something, but the only person with that power is dropping the ball.”

DeCroce said the call was motivated after New Jersey Department of Corrections Ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti announced his resignation Friday, a day after an eight-hour tense hearing before the state Assembly’s Judiciary and Women and Children committees. His resignation won’t take effect until August 1 – 114 days after its announcement.

“That’s too long,” said DeCroce. “How long does he really need to pack up his office? If he was incapable of doing his job investigating abuses when we needed him, why should we wait over a hundred days for someone who can?”

DeCroce said that Murphy should demand DiBenedetti’s resignation take effect by the close of business Monday.

She said the emergency declaration would allow him to reallocate state resources and make immediate changes at the prison. Under the state’s emergency powers, the governor is authorized to utilize and employ all the available resources of state government to protect against any emergency facing the state.

After a group of more than two dozen guards and prison staff in full body armor invaded a cell block and began beating and assaulting women prisoners in the early hours of January 11, Murphy ordered former-State Comptroller Matthew Boxer to conduct an independent investigation. The state attorney general’s office, Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, and Department of Corrections also launched investigations.

“The more we learn, this really requires boots on the ground 24-hours a day, seven days a week,” explained DeCroce. “We can’t wait months for a report. We need people at the prison who can take immediate action and who’s very presence will change the culture at the prison.”

The abuse allegations have renewed questions about the state’s management of the prison and treatment of inmates there.

A U.S. Department of Justice probe last year found the state failed to protect women from sexual abuse and uncovered widespread fear of retaliation among inmates who came forward. In a report released in April 2020, the department said that “Sexual abuse of women prisoners by Edna Mahan correction officers and staff is severe and prevalent throughout the prison.”

DeCroce joined a bipartisan group of Assembly lawmakers in February pushing for Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks’ impeachment.  The state Senate also passed a resolution seeking his resignation or removal.