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Murphy taps acting prisons head Kuhn to lead corrections
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Murphy taps acting prisons head Kuhn to lead corrections

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TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy nominated acting Corrections Commissioner Victoria Kuhn on Thursday to fulfill the role that’s been empty since her embattled predecessor stepped down in June.

Kuhn has worked at the department since 2007, serving most recently as chief of staff to former Commissioner Marcus Hicks, who resigned in June amid a criminal prosecution of guards at the state’s only women’s prison on charges that they attacked inmates.

Murphy said Kuhn has impressed him since he asked her to step in after Hicks’ resignation.

“As a career corrections staffer, Victoria has the experience and knowledge to lead the Department during this pivotal time,” Murphy said.

Kuhn cast her mission as beginning a new chapter for the department, calling for improving relationships with inmates and reinvesting in staff.

“This is the time for new beginnings — to launch new reform and reintegration initiatives, to ensure dignity and safety for our female offenders, and to establish mission-critical relationships with outside stakeholders and advocates,” she said in an emailed statement.

The governor’s comment hints at the upheaval in the department, particularly at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton. The prison is the state’s only one for women and is due to be shut down on Murphy’s orders after the January 2021 alleged attack on inmates by guards. There’s no timeline on when the prison will be shuttered, however.

Even before news of what officials say is violence against inmates, the prison had a poor reputation. The Justice Department issued a report in April 2020 finding that state officials running the prison violated inmates’ constitutional rights by failing to protect them from sexual abuse, despite being aware of systemic problems.

In August, the state and Justice Department officials announced an agreement that resulted in a federal monitor being put in place at the women’s prison.

Amid the fallout from what officials called the January 2021 attack, the state settled over 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.

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The state is paying out nearly $21 million in damages and attorney’s fees to the women involved in what officials said was an “unprecedented” amount of compensation aimed at providing relief from a well-documented culture of accepting abuse.

The state Attorney General’s Office has announced charges stemming from January 2021 against 15 prison guards, including a former administrator.

A picture of what happened at the prison a year ago has emerged, based on accounts from law enforcement, videos released by authorities showing the extractions and a report commissioned by the governor.

One video clip, for example, showed five prison guards wearing helmets, chest, back and shoulder armor filing into the cell of a woman at the prison and striking and punching the inmate in the head. “Stop punching me in my face!” the woman calls out.

Attorneys for a number of the guards have said they will fight the charges.

The Corrections Department has a nearly $1 billion budget, with 8,000 employees. There are about 13,000 inmates in 11 correctional facilities, as well as county jails and halfway houses.

Some prisoner rights activists praised Kuhn’s appointment.

Bonnie Kerness, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Program, said that in decades in the field she had not seen transparency and “genuineness of interest and commitment” until Kuhn’s current acting administration.

“Acting Commissioner Kuhn is a model of what a real Department of ‘corrections’ can be,” Kerness said in a statement. “Her outreach to community activists has encouraged appropriate and non-hostile communications within the prison community and improved safety on both sides of the walls.”

Her nomination must be approved by the state Senate.

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