Phil Murphy names new corrections chief to lead agency after abuse scandal
The NJ Attorney General's Office released video of alleged abuse of inmates taken by corrections officers inside Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, NJ. NorthJersey.com
Gov. Phil Murphy has named Victoria Kuhn his next pick to lead the Department of Corrections, a massive agency plagued by an abuse scandal that led to more than a dozen criminal charges.
Kuhn has been the acting commissioner since last June, when Marcus O. Hicks resigned in the fallout from reports of abuse against female inmates by corrections officers at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Hunterdon County.
Murphy, who had said his administration was on a nationwide search to replace Hicks, said in a statement Thursday that he's been impressed by Kuhn's "dedication to reform and integrity." As a longtime corrections employee, he added, Kuhn "has the experience and knowledge to lead the department during this pivotal time."
The role of corrections commissioner is difficult on its own, with a budget of nearly $1 billion to manage, 8,000 employees to oversee and the responsibility for roughly 13,000 people in 11 corrections facilities.
Past coverage: Reports of abuse of women at Edna Mahan span decades
But the alleged beatings and sexual abuse of women by officers at Edna Mahan added a new layer of complexity.
Fifteen corrections officials have been charged by the attorney general. The U.S. Department of Justice intervened last summer to ensure that prisoners are better protected. The administration paid $21 million to settle sexual abuse claims in a lawsuit brought by prisoners. And Murphy plans to close the century-old facility, a large undertaking that will likely take several years.
In a report commissioned by the administration after news stories detailing abuse at the facility, investigators reviewed videos they said are "exceedingly violent and are alarming in a way that is difficult to put into words."
The announcement of Murphy's selection of Kuhn made no mention of the abuse scandal, but Kuhn obliquely acknowledged it and her responsibility going forward.
"This is the time for new beginnings — to launch new reform and reintegration initiatives, to ensure dignity and safety for our female offenders, and to establish mission-critical relationships with outside stakeholders and advocates," she said.
"Equally important, we must recognize and reinvest in our dedicated staff, their welfare and training, as they are integral to the success of the mission of the Department," Kuhn said.
Advocates and other state officials praised Kuhn, a former prosecutor who has worked at the agency since 2007.
"In the decades during which we’ve been advocates on behalf of people in prison in New Jersey, we have not — until now — had the experience of prisoner contact, transparency, and genuineness of interest and commitment evidenced by the present acting commissioner and her team," Prison Watch Program Director Bonnie Kerness said in a statement.
Samuel J. Plumeri, Jr., chairman of the State Parole Board, said the panel is "extremely pleased" with Murphy's selection of Kuhn and he is "equally excited" to collaborate with the agency under her leadership.
"I have known Victoria for many years and she is the obvious choice to lead the Department because of her experience, commitment, and passion to protect the public and keen oversight for New Jersey’s State prison system," Plumeri said in a statement.
Kuhn must be confirmed by the state Senate.
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.