The alleged rape and beatings of six inmates at the state’s women’s prison is becoming a growing political problem for the governor.
A group of women leaders and elected officials, including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, joined together today to demand the firing of Marcus Hicks, the commissioner of the state Corrections
Department in the aftermath of a Jan. 11 incident described today as both sickening and appalling.
Weinberg put it this way:
“The Department of Corrections seems to be steeped in rape culture.”
The state Attorney General’s Office has charged three officers for their role in the incident and more than two dozen others have been suspended. Inmates were allegedly physically abused and in some cases tortured shortly before midnight at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Hunterdon County.
Gov. Phil Murphy has called any abuse of power “abhorrent.” Beyond a criminal investigation, Murphy said in a recent statement that, “we must have a full accounting of how this incident was able to happen, so that we can put in place necessary reforms and safeguards.”
That sounds like a legitimate, albeit very official, response. Yet, the governor as of now has stopped short of suspending Hicks, pending the “full accounting” of which he speaks. And to that end, the administration has retained Matt Boxer, the state’s former comptroller to head an investigation.
Weinberg said she has “spoken” to the governor via text, but refrained from divulging details.
Others are becoming more provocative. There is a proposal in the Assembly by Republican Jean Stanfield of Burlington County to impeach Hicks, which drew a favorable response from
Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle, one of those co-hosting today’s event.
Weinberg said she hopes that won’t be necessary and that Murphy will do what’s needed.
“Really, the governor can act in a few moments,” Weinberg said.
The overall anger expressed today is not merely because of last month’s incident, as appalling as it was.
Speakers said problems at the prison have festered for years. Reforms were supposedly introduced five years ago, but they never materialized.
Weinberg pointed to a letter she received from the Corrections Department last May in which similar promises to reform the prison’s culture were made.
“This document deserves a fiction award for the year 2020,” she said.
State Sen. Linda Greenstein of Mercer County said “little has been done” to change prison practices that have allowed officers to abuse, grope and spy on inmates.
“Everyone involved should be ashamed,” she said.
Meanwhile, advocates urged the public to bombard the governor’s office with phone calls and emails demanding action.
Prison inmates may not have a large built-in constituency, but there are, or should be, basic standards of decency. An offender is sentenced to incarceration, not to a life of torture.
Huttle seemed to have that in mind when she said:
“Prisoners are still people.”