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NJ settles misconduct claims with women inmates for $21M

Twenty lawsuits were filed by current and former inmates who say they were direct victims of sexual misconduct

By Mike Catalini
Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey and women incarcerated in the state’s only women’s prison have reached a nearly $21 million settlement over longstanding allegations of abuse and harassment at the facility, embattled Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks told lawmakers on Thursday during a hearing.

Hicks also said the Department of Corrections has reached a “tentative” agreement with the the U.S. Department of Justice over reforming the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, though the details of the deal aren’t public yet. Hicks added that a federal monitor at the prison would likely be part of the agreement.

The settlement covers 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. The state will provide $20,835,600 in damages and attorney’s fees to the women in what the Department of Corrections called an “unprecedented” amount of compensation aimed at providing relief from well-documented culture of accepting abuse.

“My administration is ushering in a new era in corrections with safety and rehabilitation at its core to maintain safety within our facilities,” Hicks told the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Thursday, his first public testimony since state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced in February he charged prison guards at Edna Mahan with misconduct in an attack on inmates.

The women’s attorneys said in a statement that the negotiations were protracted and difficult, but added that the settlement along with other reforms will allow them “to turn the page on this difficult chapter.”

Not probed during the hearing in any detail were the events of the Jan. 11 and 12 attack on inmates, as described by Grewal, because of an ongoing criminal investigation that so far has resulted in charges against eight prison guards — all but one of them men — and spurred calls for Hicks’ resignation.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who has the authority to remove Hicks, has declined to weigh in beyond condemning the attack described by Grewal. He has hired an attorney to conduct what he’s calling an independent investigation into what happened.

Invoices obtained Thursday through the state’s open records law show taxpayers have been billed roughly $64,000 for the work of attorney Matt Boxer, of Lowenstein Sandler, since Murphy announced the investigation.

Hicks said Thursday his administration is cooperating with the investigation. He also disavowed those involved in the attack, saying they violated the department’s zero-tolerance policies.

“No one deserves the horrific treatment these women endured,” he told lawmakers.

His defense didn’t convince some lawmakers, though.

“Clearly something has gone wrong, so there’s a failure,” said Republican Assembly member Nancy Munoz.

According to Grewal, late on Jan. 11 and into the early hours of Jan. 12, about two dozen guards entered part of the prison and began to remove inmates. A motive hasn’t been given, but Grewal has said more information would be coming out.

One victim was pepper sprayed before the team of guards entered her cell, according to Grewal, and was then punched about 28 times in and near her face, even though she had her arms up and was trying to protect herself.

There were at least six victims in the January attack, Grewal has said.

The guards also tried to coverup the attack by filing false reports, according to a charging affidavit brought by the state.

Attorneys for many of the guards have said their clients plan to plead not guilty. Attorneys for some have not responded to requests for comment or haven’t yet been identified.

The January attack followed an April 2020 report by the U.S. Justice Department documenting a “culture of acceptance” of misconduct. The scathing report about the prison, located more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of New York City, documented that five guards and one civilian worker at the prison pleaded guilty or were convicted of sexually abusing more than 10 women from 2016 to 2019.

The report found that there were insufficient cameras, and that one storage room without a surveillance camera had a a mattress lying in it.

Guards regularly called prisoners disparaging names, graphically commented on their appearances and remarked on their sexual inclinations.

The report also found that when inmates reported abuse, the response could be retaliatory, with inmates being subjected to body orifice scanners and then being placed into solitary confinement.

On Thursday, Hicks outlined what he cast as reforms at the prison, including the implementation of body cameras, as well as filling all leadership positions at the prison with women.

The January incident led the state Senate to pass a resolution seeking Hicks’ ouster, and an impeachment resolution has been drafted in the Assembly, where it has gotten bipartisan support.

Hicks defended his tenure, citing a career in public service and efforts to make “real changes” at the department, where he became commissioner in 2018.