First woman confirmed to lead N.J.'s prison system

The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility will be a main priority for Victoria Kuhn, who has been with the DOC since 2007


By Joe Atmonavage
nj.com

TRENTON, N.J. — The state Senate has confirmed Victoria Kuhn to become the next commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, making her the first woman to hold the top position overseeing the state’s prison system.

The Senate voted unanimously Thursday to confirm Kuhn, who has been the acting commissioner since June and was previously the department’s chief of staff, after Gov. Phil Murphy nominated her for the position earlier this year.

She now awaits being sworn in by Murphy to the role.

As Department of Corrections (DOC) commissioner, Kuhn will oversee the state’s second-largest department that has an annual budget of roughly $1 billion, incarcerates around 10,000 prisoners and employs 8,000 correctional officers and civilian staff.

She takes over the position after her two predecessors left the department amid abuse allegations at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, the state’s only women’s prison. Marcus Hicks resigned from the position following officers brutally assaulting a group of women at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in January 2021. Gary Lanigan, the commissioner before Hicks, retired in 2018 amid sexual abuse allegations against staff at Edna Mahan.

The women’s prison will be a main priority for Kuhn, who has been with the DOC since 2007.

[RELATED: More cameras, 'special victims unit' coming to N.J. prisons]

The department is in the beginning stages of trying to close Edna Mahan, which is under a federal monitor after authorities found sexual abuse was rampant and an open secret for years. She recently said there is no timetable for when it will shutter.

During budget hearings earlier this month, Kuhn said she visits the facility frequently and holds listening sessions with prisoners and staff on how conditions can improve.

“We continue to make steady strides and progress in improving the oversight and operations of Edna Mahan Correctional Facility (EMCF), with the very clear goal – to establish a culture of dignity and safety that supports the population at EMCF,” she said.

But Edna Mahan is not her only concern moving forward.

[RELATED: Report: N.J.’s women’s prison making ‘steady progress’ on reforms but serious problems remain]

Despite the state’s prison population dramatically decreasing during the pandemic, the DOC is still facing a “significant staff shortage,” Kuhn told lawmakers this month. She said the department is down more than 600 officers since 2017, and over 1,000 officers are within five years of retirement, while the department is struggling to recruit and retain new staff.

Kuhn said the department had started a full-time recruiting team to address the issue.

She also said the DOC is prioritizing rehabilitation and prisoner reentry services, investing in the staff and “right-sizing” the department’s facilities with a smaller prison population.

Kuhn has received widespread praise from union leaders, advocates and lawmakers since becoming acting commissioner last year.

“We have worked with Commissioner Kuhn throughout the years in her various titles. She has always had an open door policy and has worked well with us in coming to a resolve on many issues,” said William Sullivan, the president of Local PBA 105, the union that represents the majority of the state’s correctional officers. “I believe she genuinely cares about people and will continue to lead us in the right direction.”

Lawmakers of both political parties said during recent budget hearings they were encouraged by leadership. Senate Republican budget officer Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, joked that many people have been talking behind her back.

“They are all very good things, though,” O’Scanlon said. “The team you set up, I am hearing really good things. That just has never happened. I’ve been involved a long time and corrections has always been a problem, if not a disaster.”

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