Department of Corrections Pushes to Curb Sexual Abuse at Women’s Prison

Commissioner also reports to Assembly Budget Committee about ongoing efforts to reduce substance-use disorder, change department’s ‘culture’

New cameras, a revived board of trustees, and posters outlining how to report abuse are among the measures aimed at preventing sexual abuse at the all-women Edna Mahan state prison, amid civil lawsuits and a federal investigation. That’s what New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks told the Assembly Budget Committee.

“Not only have new cameras been installed to increase security and accountability, but a new state-of-the-art-camera project is in the final stages before installation,” he said. “This is not going to be an overnight fix, but certainly we feel that the initiatives that we put in place have started to change the culture in the Department of Corrections and in particular at Edna Mahan.”

Hicks says the DOC houses more than 19,000 offenders and 40 percent have some form of substance-use disorder or addiction and need treatment. But Hicks says about 400 qualify for medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, after clinical assessments. Two hundred inmates in county jails are getting MAT, as well.

“The NJ DOC is extremely pleased with the success of our MAT program. We believe that MAT, in conjunction with behavioral therapy, is a beneficial resource that ultimately will help lead offenders to successful re-entry back into the community,” said Hicks.

Hicks says the DOC is preparing offenders for re-entry — 69 received high school diplomas last year and 502 offenders are enrolled in college-credit courses. He says the DOC has launched a peer navigator program, where six months before an inmate’s scheduled release and up to 12 months after release a former inmate in recovery coaches offenders and directs them to helpful services on the outside.

Something in common

“Due to similar backgrounds, they are able to relate to their clientele and they often serve as an offender’s primary system of support. Positions exist for as many as 30 peer navigators to assist up to 600 offenders,” Hicks said.

The commissioner says the DOC spent $38 million last year in overtime; that’s 748,000 hours or 19,000 weeks of overtime.

“In recent years we’ve had issues with, we’ve seen decreases in the number of recruits that are coming through our academy, which as you know, puts a strain sometimes on our filling of vacancies in our facilities,” he said.

Hicks said the DOC has three academy classes per year and usually 200 recruits per class. The latest class has just 79 recruits. That, he said, combines with high attrition, such as 21 percent of newly hired corrections officers leaving the DOC within three years, to create a staffing shortage. He said it’s an issue nationwide.

“We’re looking at creative ways to recruit and try to gain more interest in our custody officers,” said Hicks.

The committee’s vice chair urged the DOC to find ways to reduce overtime, saying he’s sure the department could find another use for those $38 million — an amount the commissioner says is 25 percent less than it was nearly a decade ago.