TRENTON – The state has reached an agreement on a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice that is likely to result in federal monitors overseeing changes at the long-troubled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, whose resignation or impeachment has been demanded by lawmakers in the wake of the beatings of prisoners at Edna Mahan in mid-January, revealed the pending settlement in testimony Thursday before a joint session of two Assembly committees.

“That agreement is awaiting final approval from DOJ headquarters, which we expect to receive in the coming weeks,” Hicks said.

The consent decree follows a Justice Department report from a year ago that found numerous civil-rights violations at the women’s prison. The state this week announced it had agreed to pay nearly $21 million to settle civil lawsuits filed in connection with sexual assaults at the prison dating to 2014.

Hicks said settlement discussions have been going on “for quite a while” and that they were extended by the Jan. 11 incident, in which numerous inmates were seriously injured and eight corrections officers have been criminally charged.

“The Department of Justice wanted, rightfully so, wanted more information about what took place,” Hicks said. “But as I’ve stated, we have a tentative agreement.”

Hicks declined to share other details of the agreement because the Justice Department hasn’t given it final approval. He said he didn’t request federal monitors but always expected them to be part of the resolution.

“As part of the DOJ consent decree, there likely will be federal monitors at Edna Mahan,” Hicks said. “And I can tell you again that we have been nothing but cooperative with the Department of Justice since the onset of the investigation in 2018. I am perfectly fine working with DOJ. I have no issues with that whatsoever.”

Lawmakers blistered Hicks and the state’s Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson, then heard from prisoners and their advocates, for more than seven hours of hearings over the problems at Edna Mahan, which they said have gone on for decades without improvement.

“It’s unclear to those of us up here whether things have gotten better or worse,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “There are serial rapists who continue to have inmates entrusted to their care and custody, who continue to be employed at Edna Mahan today, and there are others who share culpability because they stand idly keeping watch.”

“Maybe the federal monitors will have better luck,” Mukherji said. “I pray that they will.”

Hicks – who is due back before the Legislature’s budget committees on May 3 and 11 – defended the department and pace of reform.

“Change is coming slowly but surely, as these things take time,” Hicks said. “Shifting a culture takes time, but my administration is up to the challenge. It’s the right team for the job with individuals who operate with integrity and passion for our mission. We are committed to being the drivers of the cultural shift, realizing our mission focused on safety and holistic rehabilitation.”

Nafeesah Goldsmith of Neptune, a lead organizer for NJ Prison Justice Watch, who detailed physical and sexual abuse she suffered while incarcerated for nearly 13 years at Edna Mahan, said the culture creates trauma and hasn’t changed.

“The culture killed my friends,” Goldsmith said.

Mukherji also hammered the corrections ombudsman, saying a reform law granting it more powers appears to be too slowly implemented, without the urgency that would be expected of focusing first on Edna Mahan.

Corrections Ombudsperson Dan DiBenedetti said his office’s powers are misunderstood.

“Some believe that this office staff has the ability to investigate criminal actions, and we’re not – we’re not law enforcement agents,” DiBenedetti said. “We can only report on the contacts and the complaints that we receive. If an inmate doesn’t reach out to this office to complain or ask us for assistance, then we’re not aware of it.”

Tess Borden, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said that is no longer accurate under a law signed in January 2020.

“That may have been the ombud’s role before the Dignity Act. I do not believe that is the central purpose of the ombudsperson under the Dignity Act and the law of the land today,” Borden said. “I understand the ombud’s office as being an independent oversight entity, oversight of the DOC, that is empowered to identify and address systemic issues. And the systemic issues piece to me is really important.”

Mukherji said the ombudsman’s office is allowed to conduct both announced and unannounced inspections of prisons. So far it has done two of each – and at both facilities, it conducted both types on visits on the same day. Mukherji asked why and was flabbergasted by the answer.

“We announced that we were going to come, and we gave them the unit that we were going to inspect,” DiBenedetti said. “And then upon completion of that, we chose another unit in that facility to inspect that they were not aware of, in order to complete two units in the same day with the same staff.”

“So, it’s unannounced because you went to a different unit in the same prison,” Mukherji said.

“They would have no idea what unit we would choose,” DiBenedetti said.

“But – but they’re prepared you’re coming. Right?” Mukherji said.

“Not necessarily,” DiBenedetti said.

Seven seconds of silence followed.

“I’m not sure what’s happening right now,” Mukherji said.

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“That prison knows you’re coming, and your staff – and your short staff, the inspectors so to speak go there on the day that the entire prison staff, like the warden and the folks in charge, who might be like, ‘Get the house in order. The ombudsperson’s coming tomorrow,’” he said. “Don’t you think if they don’t know what housing unit you’re coming to, they’re just going to be prepared at all of the units at that prison? Which means the unannounced inspection is kind of duplicative of the announced inspection.”

DiBenedetti said future inspections can be divided between two dates, as the staffing at his agency has recently increased from six to 10, with another two assistant ombudspeople being added soon.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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