A top official is leaving, but lawmakers say NJ prisons chief must go

Oversight official plans to retire. That hasn’t moved legislators who say commissioner should resign or be replaced
Credit: NJ Spotlight News
Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women

The announcement of a shake-up in the leadership of New Jersey’s corrections ombudsperson’s office has not changed the minds of at least some lawmakers who continue to call for replacing Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks.

“I have not changed my opinion,” said Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), one of the loudest legislative voices seeking Hicks’ resignation or replacement, on Monday.

Dan DiBenedetti, the current ombudsman responsible for oversight of the state prisons, is now planning to retire after a lengthy legislative hearing last week where he acknowledged he didn’t visit the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility after a violent assault on inmates there. Lawmakers also pressed him on why he appeared not to use broad powers to examine allegations of abuse a new law gave him last year.

That retirement announcement has some wondering if it was made to draw attention away from Hicks. And lawmakers are still calling for Hicks to leave office or be impeached.

Gov. Phil Murphy remains silent on that.

On Monday, Murphy said he would not comment on personnel matters at the Department of Corrections. As for Hicks, Murphy said he did not have “any news on Commissioner Hicks.”

On Thursday, two Assembly committees held a joint hearing on problems at the Edna Mahan facility — which is the state’s sole prison for women — that stretched for nearly eight hours. The meeting was prompted by assaults in January by corrections officers that seriously injured two inmates.

There, Hicks defended his “character” and his experience, telling lawmakers that change comes slowly, but “My administration is up to the challenge.”

READ: Abuse, neglect at Edna Mahan women’s prison

WATCH: DOC commissioner faces lawmakers about Edna Mahan attacks

‘New leadership is needed’

Weinberg said Hick’s comments and subsequent testimony over three hours did not alleviate her concerns. “It is even more apparent that Commissioner Hicks should step down and new leadership is needed at DOC,” Weinberg said.

At the end of Thursday’s eight-hour hearing, Republican Assembly members on the committees called for both Hicks and DiBenedetti to resign. They said “intolerable operations” at the Hunterdon County women’s prison “requires a new commissioner and ombudsman immediately. It is clear to us the cancer has metastasized and the decades long damage can only be reversed by a complete change. Everyone has to go.”

Just 24 hours after the criticism from lawmakers and advocates, Murphy’s office said DiBenedetti would be retiring this summer. He has spent 30 years in state employment, including the last 12 as the ombudsman.

Asked about DiBenedetti during Monday’s briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, Murphy would only say that the position of corrections ombudsman is important.

“That’s a position that we take seriously,” Murphy said. “The folks who are responsible for filling that position will be doing so expeditiously. That’s clearly an important role.”

Murphy waiting on independent investigation

Shortly after the January assaults came to light, Murphy said he supported Hicks. More recently, Murphy has said he is awaiting the outcome of an independent investigation into the incident by Matthew Boxer, a former state comptroller. There is no word on when Boxer’s inquiry will be complete. An investigation by the state attorney general’s office, which has already charged eight officers with assault and official misconduct, is continuing.

Last week, Assembly members were told Hicks would not respond to questions about the Jan. 11 extractions that led to the inmate assaults because the investigation is ongoing. They did ask tough questions of him on other issues, ranging from inmate reporting of mistreatment, sexual assault and retaliation to whether he is fully implementing recent laws providing at least some measure of “dignity” to prisoners and curtailing the use of isolated confinement, commonly known as solitary.

Hicks generally painted a positive picture of steps the corrections department is taking both generally and specifically at Mahan to deal with troubling problems and carry out the new laws. He said there are issues at Mahan that date back decades and that the department now has a zero-tolerance policy regarding assaults. Hicks also said inmates can report incidents in many ways, including via a confidential hotline. And he firmly said, “We do not have solitary confinement.”

Some dispute those and other assertions. For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice report on Mahan issued a year ago said sexual assaults were continuing at the facility after Hicks took command of the DOC in 2018. ACLU-NJ attorney Tess Borden questioned Hicks’ statement that only 22 violations of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) were reported in 2019 when the DOJ “found PREA violations and sexual violence were rampant at that facility” during the same time.

“I don’t know what the commissioner meant when he said that they’re (grievances are) confidential,” Borden said. “They’re communications to the DOC, responded to by the DOC, and to my knowledge, nothing in the grievance process keeps the specific officer from knowing that a grievance has been filed against them. We’ve heard the same concerning patterns with respect to the grievance process more generally, as we do with the PREA reporting system, and that is that people fear they cannot report officer abuse, whether physical or verbal.”

Borden added that while the DOC may have changed the names of the units it used to use for solitary confinement, “I’m sorry to report that it (the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act) has not been fully implemented. This failure of implementation falls squarely at the feet of the DOC.”

Larger failures at the DOC

While praising the announcement of the ombudsman’s retirement, some advocates said they hope he is not being used as a scapegoat for larger failures within the DOC.

“I renew my call for the resignation of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), a prime sponsor of both the dignity and isolated-confinement restriction laws, following the hearing.

Huttle also sought details of the $21 million proposed settlement Hicks announced last week that his office had reached involving 22 current and former inmates alleging sexual abuse and harassment since 2014. “The settlement is evidence of the systemic abuses at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility,” Huttle said. “It is also evidence of the need for improved leadership and accountability at the facility.”

WATCH: Calls to remove leadership at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility after abuse allegations

READ: Will oversight official’s retirement mean hope for NJ inmates?