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

Following a violent assault on female inmates, lawmakers questioned what exactly his office did with expanded powers. Now, prison ombudsman says he plans to retire

 

Now that a top oversight official for New Jersey’s prisons has announced his resignation – a day after a hearing where legislators were clearly unhappy with his work – inmates could see their conditions improve, lawmakers said.

Ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti plans to resign this summer from the position he has held since 2009. He would leave office a year after getting greater power to serve as a prison watchdog but, critics have said, not using that power.

New Jersey’s prisons have come under increased scrutiny, including its only prison for women where federal authorities have detailed assaults and sexual abuse. A violent assault on female inmates earlier this year is now the subject of criminal investigations.

“I look forward to working with new leadership to realize the full potential of the Office of the Corrections Ombudsman,” said Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex), who sponsored the law that gave DiBenedetti’s office broader powers last year.  “I stand with prisoners, advocates, survivors and the formerly incarcerated in seeing the opportunity a renewed office can bring to enact transformative change … With new leadership and perspective in the Office of the Corrections Ombudsman, we are one step closer to changing the culture of abuse and ensuring our prisoners are treated with dignity and respect.”

On Thursday, Assembly members held a marathon hearing on problems at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility prompted by assaults in January by corrections officers that seriously injured two women. So far, eight officers have been arrested and charged and several lawmakers and advocates called for DiBenedetti to resign or be replaced. Lawmakers have also said Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks should either be fired or impeached.

DiBenedetti, who has an annual salary of $117,000 and 30 years of credit in the state pension system, testified for the first time Thursday during a hearing that detailed few inspections and a broad lack of oversight, particularly at the Edna Mahan facility.

The hearing “cemented the reality that the office was not living up to the expectations or authority with which it has been vested,” Lopez said, adding that she is looking forward to new leadership at the facility taking a more proactive role.

Assemblywoman Gabriella Mosquera (D-Gloucester), chair of the Assembly Women and Children Committee, said the hearing “revealed a concerning lack of oversight and support for inmates of Edna Mahan, despite the existence of New Jersey’s Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson. The purpose of this office is to actively serve as a neutral party that addresses concerns and complaints regarding the treatment and conditions in our prisons – yet that hasn’t been happening.”  

READ: Culture of abuse and neglect unsettles joint hearing on Edna Mahan Women’s Prison

WATCH: Department of Corrections commissioner faces lawmakers about Edna Mahan attacks

When New Jersey lawmakers wrote the Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act guaranteeing a level of “dignity” to state prison inmates, they expanded the authority of the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson to ensure that institutional officials follow the new law. The law, which took effect in August, also more generally called for the office to inspect prisons and recommend improvements.

“Mr. Ombudsperson, where have you been?” Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee that held a joint hearing with the Assembly Women and Children Committee, asked at the opening of the hearing that stretched for eight hours. “You were armed, empowered and tasked by that law to be an independent watchdog and to prevent the kinds of criminal atrocities that occurred on Jan. 11.”

Members clearly did not like what they heard. DiBenedetti said he had not personally visited the Hunterdon County women’s prison since the Jan. 11 incident where inmates were extracted by officers using pepper spray left one woman with a fractured eye socket and another with a concussion after being punched 28 times. DiBenedetti had not been there in more than a year, although he said staff visit weekly, he said.

One especially surprising moment during the hearing came when DiBenedetti, in response to a question from Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Bergen), said assessing the conditions of Mahan prior to Jan. 11 was a “tough question.”

“I think we need an answer,” DePhillips responded. “You’re our ombudsman and we want to know what you thought of the conditions at the facility.”

“I didn’t believe for them to be unacceptable, no,” DiBenedetti said.

Justice Department claims abuses

Last April, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report about Mahan, alleging multiple civil rights violations because the state Department of Corrections (DOC) “fails to keep prisoners at Edna Mahan safe from sexual abuse by staff.”

That report was somewhat critical of the ombudsperson’s office, stating that prisoners have the option to remain anonymous in reporting sexual abuse, but the reports from the ombudsperson’s office “clearly identified the reporters of sexual abuse, without any mention of anonymity or confidentiality.” It also stated that when a woman who had reported sexual abuse by a corrections officer told the ombudsperson’s office that she was suffering from retaliation as a result, the office “did not forward her complaint to the facility administrator.”

Particularly concerning to a number of Assembly members and advocates was the way DiBenedetti said he views his office’s mission and the way lawmakers and advocates see it.

DiBenedetti told the Assembly members his office’s job is to “handle complaints regarding the living conditions and treatment of state sentenced inmates that are housed in state prison facilities.”

Mukherji told the ombudsman that the job should be much more than that, while acknowledging that the role was expanded only eight months ago.

“We’ve empowered your office to be one of the most powerful in the country and I recognize that that was recent,” he said.

Tess Borden, an ACLU-NJ attorney, cited Washington State’s corrections ombudsman as a model and said the dignity act gave New Jersey’s counterpart even broader powers. The Washington ombudsman’s office holds quarterly stakeholders meetings, posts monthly reports in addition to an annual report and has issued several dozen specific reports – with responses from the state corrections department — over the last two years on topics that include inmate mattresses, the use of force, medical treatment and deaths in custody.

“In New Jersey, the dignity act creates the most robust corrections oversight entity in the country, and we should be really proud of that. We have the opportunity to be a national leader here,” Borden told the committees. “Mr. DiBenedetti testified before you this morning that his office has complied with the majority of the law’s provisions. I’m afraid to say I have a very different opinion.”

For instance, she said, the law requires New Jersey’s ombudsperson to hold quarterly public meetings that include stakeholder input, yet no such meetings appear to have occurred.

“This is just one example, but I worry it sends a message to the public and to those incarcerated, that the office is in many ways still doing business as usual, business the old way,” Borden continued. She added that it appears to be “the same nonresponsive office” that one former Mahan inmate told the hearing still has never responded to complaints she made more than a decade ago.

DiBenedetti did not respond to a request for comments. His office’s annual report for the year ending last Sept. 30, two months after the dignity act took effect, indicates that the office received more than 300,000 inquiries and close to 50,000 grievances that year, with less than 2% of each category left pending or unopened by the end of the year, but it’s unclear how these were handled. Another former inmate who is now an advocate for the incarcerated, Lydia Thornton, said the ombudsperson’s office typically just passes complaints along to the DOC.

The report and the state budget also state that the ombudsperson’s office handled 14,105 “contacts” last year, three quarters of which involved state prison inmates with another 20% involving those in halfway houses and the community assessment center. That works out to 2,960 contacts per ombudsman or assistant.

DiBenedetti told the Assembly members his office has been understaffed for years. He has held the position since 2009 and said at its peak the staff was 16, which he said was an adequate size. At its lowest point, the staff had been cut to eight. Today, the office has 10 workers, including DiBenedetti and his six assistants and a budget of just over $1 million, up from $784,000 last year. Gov. Phil Murphy has recommended to increase the budget by almost a third in the 2022 fiscal year that begins July 1, which would bring it up to $1.32 million and a staff of 13, budget documents show.

By contrast, the Washington state corrections ombudsman’s office lists a staff of 11 professionals.

The dignity act did not provide any additional money for New Jersey’s office; the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services said it could not estimate the fiscal impact of the law on the corrections ombudsperson, but said the office may have to hire a minimum of two staffers at a cost of between $75,000 and $100,000 each per year.

Announced inspections

That law also requires the ombudsperson’s office to conduct inspections of facilities. The first two were at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility on March 24 and New Jersey State Prison on March 31, according to the office’s website.

Mukherji said he was disappointed that both announced and unannounced inspections were done on the same day – DOC is alerted to the inspection of one unit but not a second one that the ombudsperson evaluates on the same day.

“That prison knows you’re coming, and your staff … go there on the day that the entire prison staff like the warden and the folks in charge who might be like, get the house in order,” Mukherji said. “Don’t you think … they’re just going to be prepared at all of the units at that prison, which means the unannounced inspection is kind of duplicative of the announced inspection?”

He also complained that the inspections appear to be more of a checklist than a more thorough examination that includes interviews with inmates and staff. Among the checklist items are whether all beds include a mattress and a pillow, whether all inmates have running water and a functioning toilet and whether divided compartmented trays are used for meals.

In response to a question about whether his office has briefed prison officials that they have to accommodate inspections and act on what is found, DiBenedetti said yes, adding, “Before we started the inspections, we did provide the inspection report to the Division of Operations staff at the Department of Corrections and they informed all of the administrators that we were going to begin this process, and they’ve all been made aware of, once they return the report to us with any of their comments and their actions taken that the report is posted online.”

“Like the chairman, I was disturbed to see these reports were merely a checklist for a walkthrough and no meaningful interviews with staff or prisoners appeared to have occurred,” Borden said several hours after DiBenedetti’s testimony. “The law explicitly provides the facility inspections may include examining incidents of physical and sexual assault, medical and mental health care, use of force and the inmate grievance process, among many other areas. Why were none of these areas addressed in any of the inspection report? Why was it just a checklist that Mr. DiBenedetti acknowledged facility staff were given a copy of in advance?”

Mukherji ended the morning session saying DiBenedetti’s office “could be so much more than it has been” and described his frustrations with what he had heard from the ombudsperson.

“You, you might be a good person, and well intentioned … and this is an off the cuff reaction and maybe it’s one that isn’t fair to make,” he said. “It could just be that you’re not a wartime consigliere, but I leave here very disappointed.”

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