New N.J. corrections watchdog named in aftermath of scandals at women's prison
It's a key position in a prison system that has struggled to rein in criminal behavior, particularly at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women
By S.P. Sullivan
CLINTON, N.J. — Gov. Phil Murphy has named a new watchdog to lead a revamped oversight office a year after the state’s previous ombudsman resigned amid complaints of lax oversight and widespread abuse at New Jersey’s women’s prison.
Terry Schuster, formerly the head of a criminal justice program at Pew Charitable Trusts, will helm the state Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson.
The post comes with expanded powers under the 2020 Dignity Act, a law that empowered the office to investigate complaints of sexual assaults, use of force and medical issues, among other problems.
It is a key position in a prison system that has struggled to rein in civil rights abuses and criminal behavior, particularly the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. That prison, currently subject to federal monitoring under a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, is now slated to be shut down.
“Terry’s successful professional track record in securing transformational outcomes within the criminal justice and corrections fields made him a clear choice for this role,” Murphy said in a statement. " I look forward to the contributions he will make to improve the lives of the people incarcerated in our state correctional facilities.”
Schuster, who previously worked at Pew overseeing campaigns to reduce national prison populations, said in a statement he was “grateful” for the appointment and ready to get to work.
“I believe the solutions to problems like institutional violence are built on good will, diplomacy, and listening to the people who work and live in our state prisons,” he said.
His appointment was met with praise by state lawmakers, who have previously criticized the Murphy administration for its handling of a series of scandals behind bars.
“With the position being filled after a credible and deliberative process, our state can hopefully turn a new corner, fix a broken system, and provide support to inmates and correctional staff who have concerns to report confidentially,” Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D- Hudson, said in a statement.
The Dignity Act allows for the office to subpoena witnesses, conduct investigations into alleged wrongdoing and hold public hearings. It is considered one of the most powerful of such positions in the country, but has sat empty since former ombudsman Dan DiBenedetti stepped down following a tense April 2021 public hearing, at which he struggled to explain how the office missed years of documented abuse at Edna Mahan.
The issue came to a head when more than a dozen officers were charged in a coordinated beat-down of female prisoners in January 2021.
A newly formed advisory board for the ombudsman office also praised the appointment. Made up of representatives from civil rights groups like the ACLU, former prisoners and advocates for sex assault survivors, the board said in a joint statement Thursday the pick was “a major step in fulfilling the promise” of the Dignity Act and reforming the state’s prison system.
Schuster replaces Dan Di Benedetti, who left the office in April 2021 and retired in June. Di Benedetti, who held the position since 2009, came under fire earlier during legislative hearings for not using the broad investigatory powers he had and for failing to flag problems at the Edna Mahan, where federal authorities said sexual abuse was an “open secret” for decades.
The scandal also led to the ouster of former Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks. Hicks was replaced by acting Commissioner Victoria Kuhn, who has also won praise from reformers.
©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit nj.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC