Despite law, NJ prison oversight on hold

A panel created to oversee reforms is waiting for Murphy’s appointments. A top corrections official with expanded powers is on leave until his official retirement
Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
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To ensure some level of dignity to the incarcerated, legislators last year passed a reform law that gave broad powers to the corrections ombudsman and created an advisory board to assist those efforts. At the moment, New Jersey has neither.

The current ombudsman said he would retire on Aug. 1, but he is on an extended leave until then, using up paid time off.

Seats on the advisory board remain open, and members of that board have been unable to meet both because they lacked a quorum and because there is no ombudsman to coordinate with.

“I can’t get a hold of them, I can’t get a hold of anybody,” said the Rev. J. Amos Caley, prison and drug policy director with Salvation and Social Justice and one of six legislative appointees to what is to be a nine-member advisory board to the corrections ombudsman. “We’re basically in a lame duck, where nobody’s at the wheel … It’s nothing short of head-scratching to me why, as you know the publicity is mounting on the abuses that have gone on in Edna Mahan.”

The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Hunterdon County is the state’s only prison for women, and it has been the site of physical and sexual abuse for decades. The latest publicly known incident was an assault in January that left at least two inmates seriously injured. Now, 10 corrections officers face criminal charges, another 20 are suspended with pay, and the state Senate unanimously called for the ouster of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks. Since then, Hicks has announced a host of reforms, but advocates say the state needs an activist ombudsman to ensure those and other improvements are implemented properly.

Ombudsman under fire

Dan DiBenedetti, the current ombudsman, came under fire last month in a daylong joint Assembly committee hearing. In answering questions, DiBenedetti said he personally had not visited Mahan in more than a year despite a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice about continuing sexual harassment and assaults there and that January incident where the inmates were injured. DiBenedetti also said he shared his department’s inspection criteria with prison officials and said his staff was conducting unannounced inspections on the same day as announced visits.

Several advocates and legislators called for his removal. The day after the hearing, it was announced that he would be retiring this summer.

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

WATCH: He was in charge of oversight at NJ prisons. After tense hearing, he will retire

But lawmakers and advocates say DiBenedetti, whose annual salary is $117,000 according to state records, is essentially already gone. He is using up accrued time off, and his office indicated he is on a terminal leave leading up to his retirement.

Some legislators have called for his immediate replacement, but some advocates caution against filling his position too quickly with someone potentially unqualified for the job.

“It would be a masterpiece of a mistake to just appoint somebody new into the ombudsperson’s office without actually making some strong decisions about what that office is supposed to look like,” Caley said. “The first thing we need to do is assemble the advisory committee, especially attending to appointments of people who have intimate knowledge of it. Not just political appointments, but appointments that have a vested interest or experience in monitoring and oversight. You can use them to buoy the ombuds office, especially because there are still staff there. We can be meeting with them but we can also be meeting with and vetting some of (Gov. Phil) Murphy’s ideas for new ombuds people.”

Why the delay?

Caley questioned the delay in appointing members to the advisory board, which was created by the Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act that the governor signed in January 2020 and took effect Aug. 1.

Under the law, the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate president each get to name three members to the board. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) appointed Caley; Ron Pierce, a former incarcerated man who works with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; and Gale Muhammad, founder of the inmate family support group Women Who Never Give Up. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) made his appointments April 15, although advocates were unaware as recently as last Friday that Sweeney had done so. He named Patricia Teffenhart and Robert Baran, both of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and Kathy White Thomas of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, which operates several halfway houses.

Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to make his appointments, although sources say he will name three members sometime this week. His choices are said to be Tess Borden, a staff attorney at ACLU-NJ; Carolyn Chang, social justice committee chair of the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey; and Ed Neafsey, a retired superior court judge who teaches at Rutgers Law School in Newark.

The governor’s office did not answer questions about when he plans to name a new corrections ombudsperson.

With now at least a majority of members appointed, it is possible the advisory board could begin meetings, but it still needs to have someone within the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson with whom to coordinate and communicate, Caley said.

Prison watchdog

In crafting the dignity act, lawmakers intentionally expanded the power of the ombudsman’s office to be more of a watchdog, including by conducting prison inspections and recommending improvements. Advocates want to see the office function more like that of the Washington ombudsman, which holds quarterly stakeholder meetings, posts monthly and annual reports, and has issued several dozen specific documents on topics ranging from inmate mattresses to deaths in custody.

Two former incarcerated women told Assembly members during last month’s hearing that over the last decade or more, the ombudsman’s office has typically just received complaints and passed them along to prison administration or the Department of Corrections.

According to its annual report for the year ending last Sept. 30, the ombudsperson’s office handled 14,105 “contacts” last year, three-quarters involving state prison inmates and another 20% involving those in halfway houses and the community assessment center. That works out to 2,960 contacts per ombudsman or assistant.

DiBenedetti had told the Assembly members his office has been understaffed for years. Murphy has recommended increasing the budget by almost a third in the 2022 fiscal year that begins July 1, which would bring it to $1.32 million and a staff of 13, budget documents show.

Oversight of new state reforms

In addition to helping the ombudsperson’s office in its oversight role, including over recent state reforms that give certain rights to inmates and curtail the use of isolated confinement, Caley said the board can play an important role in overseeing new reforms Hicks has announced.

Several advocates have said that while having some corrections officers wear body cameras has the potential to prevent physical or sexual assaults of inmates, it is fraught with potential problems. Women shower and dress, and at times are strip-searched, by guards. Access to retained video must be strictly regulated. And inmates or their lawyers should have the ability to review footage when there are questions of improper conduct by guards or prisoners.

There is also a real need for general prison transparency, Caley said, adding, “I still think that there’s so much that we still don’t know about what’s going on inside of the prisons because there’s just no oversight at all.”

READ: For decades women were raped and abused. Now NJ prisons promise changes

WATCH: Two more officers charged in Edna Mahan prison abuse

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