New Jersey’s prisons, where a federal investigation found a “pattern” of sexual abuse, now have an early warning system to monitor staff behavior and a $1.3 million contract with a consultant to recommend reforms, the corrections commissioner told lawmakers Monday.
And starting next Monday, there will be a new assistant commissioner of women’s services to oversee reforms at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, where a January incident left two inmates seriously injured and now 10 corrections officers facing criminal charges.
Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks mostly declined to specifically discuss the January assaults during a hearing before the Assembly Budget Committee. But Hicks did provide a few details not previously made public about that incident. He said that 30 Department of Corrections staff were suspended, with pay, following the incident, and one of those was Sean St. Paul, an administrator.
The 10 corrections officers who have so far been criminally charged with assault or official misconduct “have already been removed from the department,” Hicks said.
Although it was a hearing on the proposed budget for the Department of Corrections, much of the discussion focused on physical and sexual assaults at New Jersey’s women’s prison, with Hicks defending himself and his administration’s efforts there in the face of calls for his resignation.
The department’s overtime budget was the only other major point of contention between lawmakers and Hicks, with Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chairman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) grilling the commissioner over the projected increase in overtime this fiscal year, compared with 2020. This is despite the department’s continued rise in overtime costs even with a single-year drop of more than 4,800 inmates over the last year. DOC disputed the estimates but said lack of a full complement of staff and the coronavirus pandemic drove overtime spending over the last year.
Hicks, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy in May 2018, faced tough questions about the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, which the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found has allowed a “pattern” of sexual abuse of prisoners by Mahan staff and where at least two women were seriously injured in assaults by guards. Burzichelli asked him directly to respond to the resolution the Senate passed unanimously earlier this year calling for his resignation, which the assemblyman called “almost unprecedented,” and Hicks did respond to that for the first time.
‘We have been proactive since day one’
“I’ve been in this position going on three years and the things that I’ve outlined are real things that we have done and we have been proactive since day one of my appointment,” responded Hicks, who devoted much of his 30-minute opening statement to issues at Mahan. “So, what I say to that is we’re here to change something that has been in existence for decades. And in the three years that I’ve been in this position this department has made more strides on this issue than any other administration. And so while I understand the sentiment, there’s no doubt in my mind that we are on the right track.”
Still, Hicks faced a barrage of questions, many from Republicans who also sat in on last month’s daylong joint hearing on the situation at Mahan, over such issues as the cost of settlements with women who suffered abuse at the Hunterdon County facility to the delay in the implementation of a number of changes. These include the $6.2 million installation of new cameras that are to serve as a deterrent to sexual abuse and violence there.
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union) wondered aloud, “Are you being protected from the governor for not doing your job?”
She said she first asked Hicks about plans to improve the culture at Mahan in 2019.
“Obviously not enough was done,” she said. “There hasn’t been a change. There’s been no holistic rehabilitation at Mahan. Nothing stopped the January 11 attacks, and the oppressive culture has persisted. It has become abundantly clear … that leadership is needed in this department.”
She asked whether the January assaults, which occurred during overnight prisoner cell extractions and included what state law enforcement officials say was improper and excessive force, may have been prevented if federal monitors had been present that day. She also questioned why it has taken more than a year for the implementation of a settlement with the DOJ.
“I can assure you that there’s no one in this administration that’s dragging their feet,” Hicks said. “As a matter of fact, this administration has been proactive. The DOJ issued their report in April of 2020 and yet this administration had already started to put in a number of safety reforms.”
“It’s taken over a year so I guess being proactive is probably maybe not the right word,” Munoz responded. “We should probably get those recommendations in place.”
Lawsuit on sexual harassment, assault
Munoz questioned why St. Paul was given the position at Mahan when he had a “long history of abuse.” Pointing to the recent $21 million settlement of a class action lawsuit by current and former Mahan inmates regarding sexual harassment and assault, Munoz added, “We can’t just continue this behavior and think that it’s not going to cost the state fiscally, but also affect the victims, the women, the prisoners there.”
After Hicks said the camera installation project was delayed by the review process for capital projects, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth) raised her voice in reply.
“With the rapes and brutalization that were going on in that jail, this should have been a priority, and you, Commissioner, should have stomped your feet and waved your arms and whatever else you needed to do to move this up the chain, because that’s terrible,” she said. “That you’re telling me that a process kept cameras from being installed to protect these women is so frustrating and so upsetting that I don’t even have words for it. And obviously the reforms that you talked about didn’t help because January 11 happened anyway. And it’s very, very disappointing.”
On the other contentious issue, Burzichelli questioned the department’s overtime budget — a perennial issue for lawmakers — and the need to hire a consultant to recommend how to cut spending for overtime.
“It is confusing that the (inmate) population can decline, and the overtime go up,” he said. “I listened carefully to your statement, and recognize that you have issues, very unique issues with COVID-19, but you’re just dealing with less people … I know you’ve got a study that you have commissioned, $465,000, to help the department understand overtime. I can sum it up in maybe a few words by saying it’s too much.”
DOC disagreed with the numbers the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services included in its budget analysis, but even using DOC’s numbers, the total overtime tab in the fiscal year ending June 30 is estimated at around $1.6 million more than in the prior year. From July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2022, DOC expects to spend $5.7 million just in conducting entry-point temperature checks at all of its facilities, done by staffers being paid overtime, the department reported to OLS.
Inadequate staffing at Mahan?
Hicks said the main problem is that the department’s staffing levels are “consistently” below what it needs. Currently, the department has about 300 fewer officers and civilian staff than it needs, and it loses about 16 officers per pay period.
“On an annual basis, that comes out to a lot,” he said, adding that filling the positions will be difficult because the department had only two classes of new recruits this year, rather than the typical three classes.
“But you’ve got 5,000 less inmates from 2020 to 2021,” Burzichelli shot back. “So at what point does your force get right-sized so you don’t need 7,000 or 7,300 correctional officers?”
Hicks said the consultant has helped other jurisdictions with scheduling to enable them to reduce overtime expenses. But he said many staff had COVID-19 and that has forced an increase in overtime, as well. An OLS document shows 2,255 officers and other employees have tested positive for the virus over the last 13 months.
“We have recognized, and we have to be fair about it, the COVID thing is the wild card,” Burzichelli said. “But you’re spending almost a million dollars a week in overtime of state funds. That’s a big number … You know, you’re in your third year now, so we look to you, you own this at this point, and the overtime trend has not been in your favor.”
Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin (D-Essex), who chairs the committee, ended the hearing with her own advice for Hicks, related to Mahan.
“As a female, and as a mother to two little girls, you have a lot of work to do,” she said. “You have really got to change the momentum of what’s going on … Once an individual is incarcerated, they don’t stop being a human being. And I think that your department, whether you need to have retraining, whether you need to have mental health for a lot of the officers … At the end of the day, we’re all humans. We expect respect. We expect these issues that we’ve brought up not only as a budgetary committee to be taken a look at.”