New Jersey officials defended the head of the prison system as a growing bipartisan chorus on Wednesday demanded a change in leadership amid reports that officers severely beat women inmates earlier this month.
A majority of the state’s 25 Democratic Senators signed a letter Wednesday demanding that Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks lose his job, according to two legislative sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The lawmakers also asked the federal government to take over the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton and demanded women inmates ultimately be moved to a safer prison, according to a copy of the letter obtained by NJ Advance Media.
The commissioner “has demonstrated time and again that he is not up to the task of running the Department of Corrections,” the lawmakers wrote to Gov. Phil Murphy. “The violations of law and of basic human rights that have been allowed to continue under the leadership of Commissioner Hicks must end now.”
Murphy so far has defended Hicks’ ongoing reforms while also appointing a special investigator Wednesday to look into the allegations.
“I’m not only sick to my stomach, I’m extremely angry about this,” Murphy said Wednesday on WNYC about reports of abuse.
Several female inmates reported being attacked by prison staff Jan. 11, and one woman told NJ Advance Media she was sexually assaulted by an officer.
Hicks first reviewed an initial investigation of the incident Jan. 14, three days after the incident, according to a spokeswoman. The commissioner then suspended staff who “may have had involvement” within “24 hours” and initiated an ongoing criminal investigation, prison spokeswoman Liz Velez wrote in an email.
Thirty staff total have been suspended, according to a union official.
Furthermore, Hicks and his staff have created a “Use of Force Committee” to review how officers use force, is expanding the use of surveillance and body cameras and plans to hire an Assistant Commissioner of Women’s Services, among other reforms, according to Velez.
“Placing the Commissioner on leave will only serve to stall this progress,” Velez said.
More than two dozen lawmakers have said that wasn’t enough, including many Republicans.
State Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, added that the appointment of a special investigator was “beyond disappointing” because “New Jersey taxpayers will have to shell out for another expensive investigation because Governor Murphy’s reaction is to circle the wagons rather than hold his team accountable.”
All seven Republican Assemblywomen called for the commissioner to step down Wednesday.
The U.S. Department of Justice previously found evidence of rampant sexual abuse at the women’s prison. A representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the prospect of federal officials taking over Edna Mahan.