Veteran Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3) this morning argued with Department of Corrections
Commissioner Marcus O. Hicks over the use of department overtime, against the backdrop of state charges filed in connection with the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women scandal.
The legislature has already called for Hicks’ resignation owing to the cover-up at Mahan of overnight officer assaults in January, which seriously injured two inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. One woman was punched 28 times and officers used pepper spray and other types of excessive use of force in violation of official policy, according to state investigators.
Following the release of a state Department of Justice report, “the January assaults and a number of other issues, including questions over the DOC’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic and whether the department is appropriately carrying out recent state laws, the state senate wants Governor Phil Murphy to dump Hicks. The state Senate last month passed without opposition a resolution urging Hicks to resign or be removed. A bipartisan resolution in the Assembly seeks to impeach the commissioner.” (WHYY PBS).
“I understand there is a disdain for what’s taken place, particularly Edna Mahan, but I’ve been in position for three years and the things I have done have been real things,” Hicks said, when Burzichelli asked the commissioner to comment on lawmakers’ call to Murphy to relieve him of duty. “While I understand the sentiment, there is no doubt in my mind that we are in the right track; we are continuing to fixing the wrongs of the past.”
Burzichelli complained that the department’s overtime situation is “eating us alive” following Hicks’ presentation of his department’s $962.5 million budget, a number the assemblyman quibbled with, before Hicks pushed back on his $1.085 billion budget figure from the Office of Legislative Services. Hicks said Burzichelli’s number included the parole board budget.
But it was really overtime at the DOC that commanded Burzichelli’s attention.
“We have an $18 million dollar difference of opinion on overtime,” said the assemblyman, circling an $81 million overtime allocation, again, a different number than the one presented by Hicks – off by almost $20 million.
In any event, “That’s a huge number,” Burzichelli said.
New Jersey’s prison population has dropped by two thirds over a decade, and by 7,000 inmates since Murphy became governor.
But “Your overtime is up – not a good thing,” Burzichelli said. “You’ve got to do better here. … It’s confusing that population declines and overtime goes up. …The overtime trend is not in your favor, granted COVID is a wildcard.”
A veteran corrections professional who served as chief of staff to the last commissioner, the embattled Hicks presented an opening statement regarding the Jan. 11th beatings scandal at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.
The commissioner pledged a zero tolerance policy for abuse of inmates. He referring to an ongoing investigation.
“We will continue to seek justice on this matter,” he promised, noting “culture changing” allocations subsequent to the beatings, including $6.1 million camera siting, $250,00o for body worn cameras complementing existing the staff’s camera system to provide additional safety measure, and proactive training.
“We recognize there is still so much to do,” Hicks said. “This administration is committed to right-sizing the wrongs of the past and is the right team to get it done.”
This past weekend, ahead of today’s hearing, Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin blocked Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield, former Burlington County Sheriff, from an opportunity to sit in for a fellow Republican member of the Assembly Budget Committee and interrogate Hicks, Stanfield complained.
“As Burlington County Sheriff, I oversaw a law enforcement agency for 18 years, and understood the way the members of my office interacted with the community came from my direction, example, and expectation,” said Stanfield, Republican candidate for senate in LD8. “Speaker Coughlin is blocking me from directly questioning the Commissioner for the same reason he is blocking my push for impeachment – he is doing Governor Murphy’s bidding by trying to silence me – and he should have to answer for it.”
Stanfield said that if she did have the chance to directly question Hicks, her question would be clear: ‘Why don’t you hold yourself responsible for the rampant abuse and misconduct within your own department, Commissioner Hicks?’”
Stanfield continued: “After the public learned of a horrific night of violence at the prison in January, Hicks suspended a number of officers, supervisors, and the prison’s administrator. Yet Governor Murphy failed to hold Hicks accountable for the abusive culture happening under his nose and allowed him to keep his job.”