New Jersey’s troubled Department of Corrections is without a Senate-confirmed commissioner. The newly empowered prison ombudsperson’s office doesn’t have an actual ombudsperson. And the state’s only women’s prison — the focus of multiple probes due to systemic violence — continues to make headlines for sexual assault involving officers.
As Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, begins his second term in January, the leadership of the state prison system and oversight of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for female prisoners remain concerns for lawmakers and prisoner advocates.
Eleven correctional officers at Edna Mahan have been arrested for charges related to assaulting women this year alone -- and that follows years of investigations detailing a culture of violence at the facility.
Murphy’s handling of the crisis — and his commitment to the embattled state corrections commissioner, who eventually resigned — was a controversial flashpoint of his first term. Going into his second term, plenty of questions remain: Who will lead the prison system? Who will take on the critical role of ombudsperson? And when will Edna Mahan close, as he has promised?
The trouble at Edna Mahan predates Murphy. Between 2016 and 2018, seven correctional officers and a civilian staff member were charged with crimes relating to sexual abuse of more than 10 prisoners, including rape. One officer was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
A subsequent U.S. Department of Justice investigation found a pattern of constitutional violations at the prison and alleged that the state Department of Corrections “fails to keep prisoners at Edna Mahan safe from sexual abuse by staff.” To address the issues, the state agreed to hire an independent monitor to oversee a litany of mandated reforms at the prison through 2024.
The most infamous incident at the women’s prison involved a night of violence last January. Officers responded to an inmate splashing liquid at an officer by conducting a remarkably aggressive search for contraband in an entire housing unit during which 22 inmates were removed from their cells — ”extracted” — by officers in riot gear.
Video footage taken by sergeants on the scene shows one inmate pepper-sprayed inside of her small cell before officers storm in; she is then punched by one officer 28 times, prosecutors allege, leading to a concussion. Another inmate’s beating resulted in a broken eye socket. Two women were strip-searched, with one alleging that she was choked and sexually assaulted as she was strip-searched.
The incident was first documented by NJ Advance Media and then in a June investigative report commissioned by the Murphy Administration. Correctional officers and their superiors falsely reported what transpired, the state report said. No contraband was located during the searches following the so-called cell extractions.
Thirty-four supervisors and staff were ultimately suspended. Ten have been criminally charged. And one day after the report was released, Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks resigned in the face of widespread blame by legislators of both parties.
Nearly six months later, Murphy has not nominated a new commissioner for Senate confirmation. Victoria Kuhn, who served under Hicks, is acting commissioner, and a spokesperson for the governor’s office said Murphy doesn’t talk about potential appointments.
The June investigative report, conducted by a former state comptroller, prompted Murphy to pledge to close Edna Mahan, but that process has barely started. The Department of Corrections is in the final stages of hiring a consultant to help with the closure, according to the governor’s office.
The investigative report put some of the blame for systemic abuse at Edna Mahan on the state Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson, which is meant to serve as a watchdog over abuses at prisons. The report said the office had “largely become, in effect, an office that receives complaints and then simply refers them to another party to resolve them.” The report recommended that the ombudsperson “be more progressive and proactive.”
Murphy signed a law in 2020 that expanded the office’s authority, making the ombudsperson one of the most powerful such positions in the country and enabling it to subpoena witnesses for investigations and hold public hearings. But the long-time ombudsperson, Dan Di Benedetti, didn’t take advantage of the new powers, legislators said, and never convened a required quarterly public meetings.
Di Benedetti retired in August, but NJ Spotlight reported that he hadn’t been in the office since at least the spring. Since then, Murphy has yet to name a replacement to the position, which has a five-year term, even as problems at Edna Mahan have persisted. In October, a correctional officer was arrested for a rape at the prison the prior month. And just a few weeks ago, an inmate escaped the facility (she was later apprehended).
At a rally earlier this week to call attention to alleged medical neglect inside state prisons, Nafeesah Goldsmith, co-chair of New Jersey Prison Watch, called out the lack of an ombudsperson.
“Right now individuals inside the prison walls behind those gates, they cannot even call an ombudsman to complain about the neglect, because our governor has yet to appoint an ombudsperson,” she said. “What are you waiting for? More to die? I can hear the screams of individuals who are in pain, individuals who are crying out because they need medical attention.”
Amos Caley, a pastor appointed by the governor to a new advisory board for the ombudsperson’s office, told WNYC/Gothamist that the ombudsperson’s office remains open — inmates and others can seek assistance here — but he said it’s “urgent” that the governor make an appointment as soon as possible. He believes staffers in the office are doing a great job in the absence of a leader, but a new ombudsperson must aggressively hold the Department of Corrections accountable in order to prevent another Edna Mahan crisis.
“The biggest missing piece here is having someone in that office that will carry the work of oversight to its maximum potential in New Jersey,” he said.
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, a Democrat who led a legislative hearing into Edna Mahan abuse, said Murphy is carefully making his selection. “My understanding is that they have been conducting an exhaustive nationwide search,” he said.
A strong ombudsperson would “make sure [the Department of Corrections] is doing all that they should be to tackle the unabated pattern of violence against women at Edna Mahan,” Mukherji said, including ensuring that there’s adequate video surveillance at the facility and that prisoners can file complaints without fear of retaliation.
Advocates envision the ombudsperson will conduct inspections and document systemic problems in order to implement life-saving reforms. The Office of the Ombudsperson’s first ever quarterly meeting is scheduled for December 7 — but it will do so without an ombudsperson presiding. The quarterly meetings should have begun as early as August 2020, when the new law strengthening the office’s powers took effect.
Advocates say the delay in bringing the ombudsperson’s office to full strength could cost lives -- and money. A class action lawsuit filed by more than 20 current and former Edna Mahan inmates who alleged sexual abuse was settled in April for $20.8 million.