TRENTON, N.J. — Embattled New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks announced the hiring of an outside consulting firm to assist with planned reforms at a Hunterdon County prison where three male guards are charged with misconduct in an attack on female inmates.
The Moss Group has been secured by the state's DOC to "provide technical support in operational practice, policy development and implementation of identified solutions related to Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women," the state announced Friday. The state is also actively recruiting an assistant commissioner to handle women's services within the state prison system.
"The NJDOC remains steadfast in its commitment to operate safe and humane facilities; this includes thinking outside the box and partnering with organizations like The Moss Group to implement sustainable safety solutions that build upon the measures established by the department to increase reporting mechanisms, surveillance and oversight," said Hicks in a statement. "The partnership with The Moss Group represents a significant step forward on the path to realizing our continuous commitment to the safety of all those in our care.”
The state said that Moss Group is "nationally recognized for its expertise in gender-responsive practice and engagement of leadership approaches and cultural norms to support effective work" with female prisoners.
"We look forward to supporting the department's commitment to safety for justice-involved women and for the staff," shared The Moss Group's President Andie Moss. “Our approach recognizes the importance of listening to all parties and successfully implementing strategies and solutions that form the foundation of sustainable change."
This comes after three prison guards face misconduct charges stemming from a violent attack on at least six female inmates, including one who was punched 28 times, in January.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said prosecutors found that the guards tried to cover up the attack at the Mahan Correctional Facility for Women by filing false reports. He said the attack happened early Jan. 11 and involved about two dozen guards.
“Edna Mahan has a long, ugly history— one that has justifiably attracted scrutiny from county, state, and federal investigators,” said Attorney General Grewal.
“That’s why we must do more than simply figure out what went wrong on Jan. 11. We must hold the responsible parties accountable, and we must fix the systemic failures that made this incident possible. I’m committed to using the full resources of my office and, with the assistance of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office, we will tackle this problem head on.”
Dozens of corrections officers at the Clinton prison — New Jersey's only women's prison — were placed on paid leave last month, following allegations that staff brutally beat and sexually assaulted inmates there.
One woman, Ajila Nelson, told NJ.com that officers on Jan. 11 handcuffed her and others, before punching, kicking, stripping and dragging her to a shower, after which she said an unidentified male officer got on top of her and groped and sexually assaulted her.
A transgender woman incarcerated at the facility was beaten by a group of officers and three officers stomped on her head, her mother, Trimeka Rollins, told the newspaper. Her daughter’s knee was so badly damaged that she’s now using a wheelchair, Rollins said.
The three officers, Correctional Police Officer Luis Garcia, Sgt. Amir Bethea and Sgt. Anthony Valvano, face charges of official misconduct and tampering with public records or information. Garcia is also charged with aggravated assault.
Gov. Phil Murphy named former state comptroller Matt Boxer as an independent investigator into the allegations.
Murphy, who described the officers' actions as abhorrent and a violation of public trust in a statement Thursday, continued to insist the state would hold anyone responsible to account.
"I understand from the attorney general’s announcement that the criminal investigation is ongoing, and I am confident that anyone who violated the law will be held accountable. Beyond the criminal investigation, 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. I am thankful to former State Comptroller Matt Boxer for taking on this crucial task.”
Despite the hiring of an outside firm and Murphy's calls for an independent investigation, there has been bipartisan fervor in Trenton to oust Commissioner Hicks. The Democrat-controlled state senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for Hicks to resign or for Gov. Murphy to fire him Friday.
Democratic State Sen. Dawn Addiego, who co-sponsored the resolution calling for Hicks to resign or be removed, said this move makes no difference.
“The hiring of a consulting firm does nothing to help the women who have already been abused," Addiego said through a spokesperson. "His first priority should be ensuring their safety which is why we have asked repeatedly that they be moved to a different facility until Edna Mahan can be reformed.”
The state's Republican caucus also reiterated their wishes to see Hicks be fired or resign.
"Our caucus believes the very first thing Gov. Murphy should do is fire NJDOC Commissioner Marcus Hicks," said New Jersey Senate Republican communications director Brad Schnure. "Unfortunately, this is another example of the governor being completely unwilling to hold anyone on his team accountable for the failures that have occurred on their watch."