In Brief

N.J. corrections department without permanent head for six months

By: - December 30, 2021 10:07 am

The New Jersey State Prison in Trenton (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The New Jersey Department of Corrections remains without a permanent head nearly six months after Commissioner Marcus Hicks resigned on the heels of a scathing report that found significant lapses in oversight at the state’s only women’s prison.

Hicks quit in early June after a report drafted by former State Comptroller Matt Boxer found leadership and communications breakdowns that left top corrections officials ignorant of numerous breaches committed by personnel at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.

Those included strip searches conducted by male prison guards — a violation of corrections policy — excessive and often severe uses of force, and false reports submitted by the prison’s guards.

“We need to get this resolved because women can no longer continue being abused,” said Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), who sponsored a resolution urging Hicks to resign and legislation mandating more training for corrections personnel.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said the state is conducting a nationwide search for Hicks’ permanent replacement, but there’s been little apparent movement on that front in the intervening months.

Murphy appointed Victoria Kuhn, a former director of the Corrections Department’s Equal Employment Division, as acting corrections commissioner after Hicks stepped down. Before his resignation, Kuhn was Hicks’ chief of staff.

The governor is not expected to appoint a permanent replacement before the new Legislature is sworn in on Jan. 11.

Fifteen employees at the Hunterdon County facility have been arrested over a series of beatings in January, and in October, another supervisor was charged with sexually assaulting an inmate.

Among the 15 charged for the January assaults is Sean St. Paul, a former corrections administrator and the top-ranking official at the prison on the night of the assaults. Like others, St. Paul is accused of official misconduct and tampering with public records for his alleged role in an attempted cover-up of the beatings.

The saga at Edna Mahan left another top corrections post vacant. Corrections Ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti announced he would resign in April after fielding blistering questions from a panel of Assembly lawmakers investigating the Jan. 11 beatings.

Though his resignation took effect on Aug. 1, DiBenedetti’s position has been effectively vacant for months longer as he burned through unused paid time off. The governor has not announced a successor.

In August, the U.S. Department of Justice reached a consent decree with New Jersey officials over prison workers’ decades-long history of sexual assault.

Federal authorities found camera blind spots created havens where prison guards could assault inmates, further charging the state was aware of the vulnerabilities but reacted with apparent indifference.

The governor has said he will close Edna Mahan, but that process is expected to take years.

“If Edna Mahan’s going away, I think our concern is when is it going away,” Assemblywoman Murphy said, later adding, “We really do need to start looking at this.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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