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Push to oust prisons administrator gains legislative support

February 12, 2021 GMT

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A legislative push to remove New Jersey’s top corrections administrator after charges of guard misconduct at the state’s only women’s prison gained traction this week, though it is still unlikely to be successful.

Republican Assemblymember Jean Stanfield said Thursday that her effort to impeach Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks now has support from a handful of Democratic lawmakers as well.

An email sent to Hicks’ spokesperson has not been returned.

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Hicks heads the state’s prison system, which oversees the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. The prison was the site of a violent attack on at least six female inmates by male guards in January, according to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

The impeachment effort faces long odds in the Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, though at least four Democratic lawmakers have said they will sign onto Stanfield’s effort.

Separately, Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said the Judiciary Committee will be launching an investigation into what happened and “any corrective action deemed necessary must be taken immediately.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney and all of the Democratic senators, who hold a majority in the body, signed a letter to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy seeking Hicks’ removal. As in the federal system, senators would only be able to vote to remove Hicks from office if the Assembly voted to impeach him first.

Murphy on Friday declined to weigh in on the effort to remove Hicks, which he has the authority to do. Hicks serves as a member of Murphy’s Cabinet.

Murphy has praised lawmakers supporting impeachment as “being on the right side of history” previously but didn’t clarify what he meant. Murphy has hired an outside counsel to conduct a separate investigation into what happened at the prison and also on Friday pointed to Grewal’s ongoing investigation.

Prosecutors have charged three guards with misconduct, including efforts to cover up the attack.

The Corrections Department has said in statements it’s working with prosecutors to investigate the alleged attack. One of the guards has said through his attorney that he plans to plead not guilty to the charges. It’s unclear whether the other two guards have attorneys yet.

Edna Mahan, located in Clinton in Hunterdon County, is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of New York City.

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Unveiling the charges last week against the guards, Grewal said the prison had a “long, ugly history” that required authorities to hold officials accountable. The prison was also focus of a U.S. Department of Justice report last year that cited rampant sexual abuse of inmates.

The state Department of Corrections spokesperson says it’s committed to changing the culture at the facility and has hired more female guards and installed more surveillance cameras among other changes.