Phil Murphy orders another investigation of abuse at NJ women's prison
Governor Murphy attends the opening of a vaccination center in Rockaway NorthJersey.com
Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday ordered an independent investigation of allegations of abuse at New Jersey's women's prison, saying he was "sickened by the horrific reports of what happened" earlier this month.
Murphy said in a statement he would appoint former state comptroller Matthew Boxer to direct the investigation and "determine how this happened and make recommendations to prevent anything like it from ever happening again."
Inmates at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton reported to advocates — who then turned to lawmakers demanding action — that multiple women were severely abused by officers in the facility on the morning of Jan. 11.
Multiple women inmates told NJ Advance Media they were beaten by officers while handcuffed. A transgender woman was beaten so severely she later had to use a wheelchair, and another woman said she was also sexually assaulted, the paper reported.
"Any outside investigation is better than an internal one," said Bonnie Kerness, program director for American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch. "This has been a long time coming."
Kerness called on lawmakers to respond to the most recent allegation of assault after receiving a letter from an inmate about the attack.
The abuse allegations have renewed questions about the state's management of the prison and treatment of inmates there.
Last year, a U.S. Department of Justice probe found the state failed to protect women from sexual abuse and uncovered widespread fear of retaliation among inmates who came forward.
In the days after the alleged assault, about 30 corrections staff, including an assistant administrator, were placed on paid administrative leave. The state attorney general's office, Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office, and Department of Corrections also launched investigations.
The Department of Corrections said in a Tuesday statement it was "fully aware of the allegations of use of force, and will not tolerate such behavior."
More than a dozen lawmakers have called on the governor to temporarily remove Commissioner Marcus Hicks while the investigations are ongoing, but Murphy has said he supports Hicks at the helm of the corrections department. In announcing the special investigation on Wednesday, Murphy said "we must go further."
"Let me be clear: every individual in state custody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and we must always remember that female inmates have long been uniquely vulnerable to abuse," Murphy said in a statement, pledging accountability.
"These types of incidents will never be tolerated," the statement reads.
Boxer, who will lead the probe announced by Murphy, is a lawyer at the firm Lowenstein Sandler LLP and leads the firm's corporate investigations and integrity section. He served as state comptroller from 2008 to 2014.
Lawmakers say Boxer's investigation should go beyond the most recent allegations.
Late Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said his chamber's judiciary committee would hold hearings to investigate the "use of force" at Edna Mahan.
The review will also include compliance with the Dignity Act, which was signed into law in January 2020. The act includes protections for inmates like prohibiting pregnant women from being put in solitary confinement and placing inmates in facilities close to where their children live.
Boxer should "identify the systemic issues at Edna Mahan leading the facility to be continually marked as an epicenter of abuse," Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-Middlesex said in a statement. Lopez sponsored the Dignity Act.
"Moreover, I implore the investigation to be centered around the victims of this assault, and that the accounts of inmates are taken with the utmost seriousness."
Stacey Barchenger is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s policymakers and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.