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NJ Senate passes measure seeking to oust state prisons chief

February 19, 2021 GMT
FILE - This photo from Monday June 21, 2004, shows inmate Mary Tobin walking a puppy down a cell block hallway at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J. Three prison guards are charged with misconduct stemming from a violent attack on at least six female inmates at the prison, including one who was punched 28 times and pepper-sprayed, New Jersey’s attorney general said Thursday. (AP Photo/Daniel Hulshizer, File)
FILE - This photo from Monday June 21, 2004, shows inmate Mary Tobin walking a puppy down a cell block hallway at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J. Three prison guards are charged with misconduct stemming from a violent attack on at least six female inmates at the prison, including one who was punched 28 times and pepper-sprayed, New Jersey’s attorney general said Thursday. (AP Photo/Daniel Hulshizer, File)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey’s state Senate on Friday passed a resolution seeking the resignation or removal of the state’s top prison official after news that three male guards are charged with misconduct in an attack on female inmates.

The Democrat-led Senate passed the bipartisan resolution 35-0. It calls on Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks to resign or be removed from his post.

Hicks’ spokesperson, Liz Velez, said in email that the commissioner has put in place measures to “ensure the safety of the women” at the prison and that removing him “in any capacity” would stall those efforts.

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A message seeking comment was left with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who has authority to remove the commissioner.

Hicks oversees the state’s prisons, including its only prison for women, the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

The prison was the site of a Jan. 11 attack by prison guards on inmates, according to the attorney general. So far, three guards have been charged with misconduct, with more charges expected, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has said.

The attack involved about two dozen guards on at least six inmates, according to Grewal. One woman was punched in the face and pepper-sprayed. Another woman reported she was sexually assaulted in the attack.

The Senate’s action is the latest legislative push to oust Hicks. In the Assembly, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing for Hicks’ impeachment. Before Friday’s vote, every Democratic senator wrote a public letter calling on Hicks to be removed.

So far, the governor has not weighed in. He has called for accountability at the department and hired an outside counsel to investigate the Jan. 11 incident. Murphy, who faces reelection this year, also points to the ongoing criminal investigation at the prison.

It’s far from the first time the women’s prison has made news, though. In April, a Justice Department investigation found a culture of acceptance of sexual assault at the prison. The report found reasonable cause to conclude the prison failed to protect women from sexual abuse by staff and exposed them to harm.

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The Corrections Department has said in response to the report that it was making a number of changes, including adding surveillance cameras and ways for women to report assaults. Those are the measures Hicks’ spokesperson referred to.

“We are committed to partnering with the DOJ on ensuring inmates’ safety, transparency, and changing the facility’s long-standing perception,” the department said in a statement to lawmakers last year.

But Republican Sen. Kristin Corrado and Democratic Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego said in a statement Friday that the department failed to reach a settlement agreement with the Justice Department that would have resulted in federal monitors being installed at the prison.

Murphy said Wednesday that the federal government and his administration were still negotiating a settlement agreement, but didn’t say why it had not yet been finalized.