Attorney and Republican Assembly challenger Claire Swift, of Margate, is the latest to call for the resignation of the New Jersey Department of Corrections commissioner over his failure to protect women prisoners from sexual and physical abuse by guards at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County.
Swift also called for Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, to move a bipartisan impeachment resolution in the Assembly State and Local Government Committee, which Mazzeo chairs.
Commissioner Marcus Hicks has refused to resign from the job he has held since 2018, even as lawmakers and activists have demanded it after a January attack on inmates. The attack brought attention to longstanding problems with the culture at the state’s only women’s prison.
“While dozens of prison officials have been placed on leave, suspended or resigned in the aftermath of the scandal, the politically appointed Commissioner Hicks has inexplicably remained on the job,” Swift said in a news release Tuesday.
Mazzeo said in a March 30 letter to resolution sponsor Assemblywoman Jean Stansfield, R-Hunterdon, that he cannot support her efforts since she has politicized the issue by fundraising off it and criticizing him for not posting the resolution. Mazzeo said Stansfield began criticizing him just hours after requesting the bill be posted, which he said was a cynical political move rather than an attempt to help abused women.
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Instead he will pursue Hicks’ resignation, Mazzeo said in the letter.
Hicks has defended his tenure, saying he’s instituted changes at Edna Mahan, including hiring more women and installing more surveillance cameras. On Tuesday, his department said it was instituting an “early warning system” to detect patterns of staff conduct and deter harmful behaviors.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has said the January incident was a “brutal attack” in which guards forcibly removed inmates from cells, against policy, and in at least two cases pepper sprayed and punched inmates. So far, 10 guards have been charged.
“What has happened to the women at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility is horrendous,” Mazzeo said in a written response Wednesday. “The pattern of behavior at Edna Mahan must be corrected, beginning with Commissioner Hicks’ resignation and full transparency regarding ongoing investigations. However, what is also horrendous is the politicization of the abuse of these women to gain newspaper headlines and fundraising dollars.”
Swift, who is running on a GOP ticket in the state’s 2nd Legislative District with state Senate candidate Vince Polistina and Assembly candidate Don Guardian, issued the demand following Hicks’ testimony to the Assembly Budget Committee on Monday.
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They face Mazzeo, who is running for state Senate on a ticket with Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic, and Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick.
Gov. Phil Murphy, who has the authority to remove Hicks, has declined to comment other than to condemn the January attack.
“After watching Hicks’s testimony and answers to the Assembly on Monday, it is abundantly clear that he must be removed from a decision-making role as soon as possible,” Swift said. “He avoided answering key questions, provided no new solutions and even came unprepared with incorrect budget numbers. What happened at Edna Mahan is perverse and appalling, but nothing will change unless the leadership is held accountable.”
Swift said Mazzeo has not advanced an Assembly impeachment resolution in more than two months in a committee he chairs. A separate resolution demanding Hicks’ resignation is stalled in the Assembly Law and Public Safety committee.
The state Senate voted to demand Hicks resign in February.
“As a former DAG (deputy attorney general), I was tasked with protecting Atlantic County’s abused and neglected children. I cannot fathom how Commissioner Hicks, who oversees a similarly vulnerable population, could say his department is ‘on the right track,’” Swift said. “It is time to put politics aside, remove Hicks from exercising more poor judgment and do what is best for the victims.”
Last month, New Jersey and women incarcerated in the state’s only women’s prison reached a nearly $21 million settlement over longstanding allegations of abuse and harassment at Edna Mahan.
The “early warning system” announced this week creates an alert and calls for action when three predetermined performance indicators occur over 12 months, such as internal affairs complaints, civil actions, criminal investigations or complaints and sexual abuse or harassment claims.
Hicks also said in April that the Department of Corrections has reached a “tentative” agreement with the the U.S. Department of Justice over reforming the facility, though the details of the deal aren’t public yet.
Hicks said then that a federal monitor at the prison would likely be part of the agreement.
The settlement covers 20 lawsuits filed by current and former inmates who say they were direct victims of sexual misconduct as well as all inmates incarcerated since Jan. 1, 2014. The state will provide $20,835,600 in damages and attorney’s fees to the women in what the Department of Corrections called an “unprecedented” amount of compensation aimed at providing relief from a well-documented culture of accepting abuse.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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