Embattled New Jersey corrections commissioner to resign

Marcus Hicks had faced sharp criticism from many lawmakers who called for his dismissal, citing his handling of problems at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women

New Jersey’s embattled corrections commissioner announced his resignation Tuesday, a day after Gov. Phil Murphy said the state would shutter its long-troubled and only women’s prison.

Marcus Hicks had faced sharp criticism in recent months from many lawmakers who called for his dismissal, citing his overall job performance and his handling of problems at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton. Ten guards face criminal charges brought by the state attorney general stemming from what he said was a violent attack on women at the prison in January.

Hicks will leave office June 18, but defended his tenure, noting that he added body cameras at Edna Mahan and hired more women on staff, plus other changes. He also retained a consultant to help turn around the prison.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to have served the Murphy Administration and the people of New Jersey as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections for the past three years,” Hicks said in a statement issued Tuesday. “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.”

In this April 10, 2020 file photo, Marcus Hick, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections answers questions during New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily press briefing about the new coronavirus at the the War Memorial in Trenton, N.J. (Chris Pedota/The Record via AP, File)

Assembly members Angela McKnight, Gabriela Mosquera, and Lisa Swain, who are also members of the Women and Children’s Committee said in a joint statement that Hicks’ resignation was “necessary” and that now new leadership can work on preventing more “human rights violations.”

William Sullivan, the head of the labor union representing prison guards, said in a statement the union is committed to working with the new administration to “enhance credibility, effectiveness, and operations.”

Murphy, a Democrat, announced his intention to close Edna Mahan on Monday, after reviewing a new 75-page investigative report he commissioned on the January attack by mostly male prison guards on female inmates.

Among the new details in the document: some female inmates were forced to strip and submit to searches in front of male guards.

The report is based on interviews with some officers — as well as Hicks — and the corrections ombudsperson, videos, and 21,000 documents and emails.

It offers details about the Jan. 11 and 12 attacks on what Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said were at least six inmates. Among its findings are that guards used excessive force on inmates and filed false reports after removing inmates from their cells. The staff also failed to bar male guards from viewing female inmates during strip searches, in violation of policy.

High fences surround buildings on the grounds of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J., Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The report also offers new details about what led up to the attack and how it unfolded.

It says that in the days before the attack, there was “a coordinated effort” by some inmates to “splash” prison guards, a term referring to throwing liquids, including urine and feces, at them.

Murphy said Monday he was “deeply disturbed and disgusted” by the attacks against inmates.

“Individuals in state custody deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and the officers involved in this incident, both directly and indirectly, abused their power to send a message that they were in charge,” he said.

The prison in Clinton, Hunterdon County, more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of New York City, dates to 1913. Grewal has said it has an “ugly history,” part of which was documented in an April 2020 U.S Justice Department report that found a “culture of acceptance” of sexual abuse of inmates.

In April, the state reached a nearly $21 million settlemen t over longstanding allegations of abuse and harassment at the facility.

Victoria Kuhn, current chief of staff for the Departments of Corrections will serve as acting commissioner.

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