NJ prisons chief resigns in fallout from assault on inmates

A report made public Monday offered damning details of events at prison for women. Murphy had stood by corrections commissioner as many called for resignation
Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office)
Marcus Hicks

New Jersey corrections commissioner Marcus Hicks resigned Tuesday, a day after a damning report portrayed him as unaware that no one was in charge of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women for almost three months leading up to and including the day officers violently assaulted inmates there.

Hicks issued a brief statement saying his resignation would be effective Friday, June 18. His chief of staff, Victoria Kuhn, would serve as acting commissioner temporarily.

“It’s been an honor and a privilege to have served the Murphy Administration and the people of New Jersey,” said Hicks, who has held the spot for the last three years. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done and wish our staff and individuals under our care well as the Department continues its mission to ensure safety and promote rehabilitation.”

On Monday, an independent report headed by former state comptroller Matthew Boxer detailed the assaults by corrections officers that seriously injured several inmates at the Hunterdon County facility. During the incident on Jan. 10, several  women were injured, including one who suffered a concussion and another with a fractured eye socket.

READ: More charges, but no word on prison investigations

WATCH: Two more officers charged in Edna Mahan prison abuse

That report prompted Gov. Phil Murphy to announce his intention to close the 108-year-old prison, though no schedule for that has been set, nor its replacement determined.

Murphy furious over report

Word spread Monday that Murphy was furious over the details of that report and that Hicks would be gone soon after months of public calls for his ouster. During a coronavirus briefing Monday afternoon, hours after his office released the 75-page document, the governor declined to comment on whether he planned to replace Hicks, saying only, “No news to make on leadership, but I’m very disturbed by the report.”

After Hicks announced his resignation, Murphy issued a brief statement: “I thank Commissioner Hicks for his service and wish him well moving forward. We must use the knowledge we now have as a result of our independent investigation to implement new policies and protocols to ensure that all inmates entrusted to the state’s care are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), one of Hicks’ staunchest critics over the last few months, echoed the sentiments of a number of lawmakers who welcomed Hicks’ announcement. She thanked him “making the right decision” and resigning.

“Now we can begin the long overdue process of safeguarding the women at Edna Mahan, who have been forced all too often to suffer untold verbal and sexual abuse and unwarranted violence over this long period of time,” she said. “I look forward to seeing our correctional institutions strive to become more humane places in which to house our prison populations, to treat our inmates with greater dignity, and to be more transparent in their operations.”

Hicks, of Robbinsville, spent 20 months as acting commissioner before winning Senate approval in January 2020. He held several positions at the corrections department, the state’s second-largest agency with a budget of about $1 billion, starting in 2007 and had worked his way up through the ranks to serve as chief of staff before Murphy nominated him to be commissioner.

His tenure was marred by the release in April 2020 of a highly critical report from the U.S. Department of Justice that detailed a culture of sexual assault and abuse at the women’s prison. The prison, the state’s only facility for women, currently houses 372 inmates, three-quarters of them in a maximum security compound.

After news of the violent cell extractions became public, lawmakers called for Hicks to resign, including the Senate in a bipartisan vote. Hicks refused to budge. Murphy initially said he stood by the commissioner and wanted to  learn all the facts about that incident before passing judgment.

Ongoing attorney general’s investigation

The attorney general’s office has so far charged 10 corrections officers; and 34 Mahan staff — including the associate administrator in charge who approved the cell extractions — were suspended. That office is continuing its investigation.

Boxer’s report provided much greater detail of the circumstances leading up to the extractions and what happened that night. Its authors reviewed 20 hours of video and described them as “exceedingly violent and alarming in a way that is difficult to put into words.” The report quotes one senior Department of Corrections official describing the footage as “one of the most disturbing series of videos I have ever seen.”

After the assault, and before an April hearing by two Assembly committees into the incident, Hicks’ office announced a number of steps related to operations at Mahan. These included an early warning system to help flag officers with problematic records, body-worn cameras for officers interacting with inmates and a $20.8 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit over sexual assaults dating back decades.

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

WATCH: Officers at women’s prison to wear body cameras

The Boxer report noted that both the body cameras and the early warning system were years late in being implemented. If they were in place before Jan. 11, and if the DOC had a clear written policy detailing who could approve cell extractions, the assaults may not have occurred, the report concluded.

According to the report, the DOC central office told all facility administrators last year that central office approval was required for overnight cell extractions, but that directive was never put in writing. The written cell extraction protocols are inconsistent in stating whether the facility administrator or those with a rank of sergeant or higher can authorize an extraction. Yet “seemingly in contrast to the policy,” Hicks told the joint Assembly committee hearing that central office must be notified prior to a cell extraction, the report states.

Lawmakers applaud Hicks’ departure

The DOC was “caught flat-footed in response to the departure” of its administrator last October, the report said. Hicks thought an acting administrator had been named a month later, but she was only another associate administrator, so no one was acting as head of the facility from late October through Jan. 16, when current administrator Patricia McGill was put in place following the assaults.

Lawmakers of both parties applauded Hicks’ departure.

“The resignation of Commissioner Hicks only addresses half of the leadership failure in the Murphy administration that allowed the abuses and sexual assaults at Edna Mahan to continue for too long,” said Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic), who blames the governor himself for not acting sooner.

“The governor’s decision to replace Marcus Hicks as Corrections Commissioner is long overdue … I’m glad that he finally heeded the unanimous vote by the Senate calling for Hicks’ removal,” said Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Burlington). “Now we need to make sure that we develop a proper plan for the closure of the Edna Mahan facility, and do it in a way that is cost-effective for taxpayers and that transitions inmates to facilities where they will be safe, where they will be closer to their families and where they can get the support, they need for reentry into society.”