Senate finally approves corrections commissioner, Murphy signs bills to help prisoners

Marcus O. Hicks was confirmed as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections. (Edwin J. Torres/ Governor's Office)

Marcus O. Hicks was confirmed as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections. (Edwin J. Torres/ Governor's Office)

This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday gave their final approval to the last of Gov. Phil Murphy’s original department commissioner nominees as the governor signed into law two measures designed to improve the lot of the incarcerated.

Some 20 months after Murphy first nominated Marcus O. Hicks to be commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the Senate Judiciary Committee interviewed and cleared Hicks, and then the full Senate voted to confirm him to head the second-largest state agency, which has a budget of almost $1 billion and 8,000 employees. Hicks, of Robbinsville, has served as acting commissioner during that time.

“It has been my honor to lead this department in the fulfillment of our mission to protect the public by operating safe, secure and humane correctional facilities through effective treatment of offenders and by providing … services that promote successful re-entry into society,” Hicks, who has held several positions at the corrections department since 2007, told the committee during an early afternoon hearing.

“I think you are the right man for the time,” Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), chairman of the judiciary committee, said in voting for Hicks.

He was the last of Murphy’s original department commissioner nominees to be approved by the Senate, and he met with no opposition from senators. While some nominations take longer than others to be confirmed, one source said a policy matter that predated Hicks’ appointment may have held up his approval. The last remaining Cabinet member whose nomination needs confirmation is Col. Patrick Callahan, acting superintendent of the NJ State Police who originally had been nominated to that position by former Gov. Chris Christie.

Among his goals for 2020, Hicks pledged to “strengthen vocational and educational offerings, and continue to advocate for the hiring of released individuals, thereby supporting and strengthening the state’s economy.”

DOC is responsible for about 18,000 individuals incarcerated in 12 facilities and community halfway houses throughout the state. While the state’s prison population has been declining, New Jersey has the greatest disparity between black and white incarceration rates in the United States. At least six corrections officers at the Edna Mahan women’s prison in Hunterdon County also criticized the department over charges of sexual assault several years ago.

Female inmate safety

Hicks told the committee that he has taken a “multipronged approach” to improving safety for the female inmates there. These include putting new training protocols in place, creating hotlines for reporting incidents, reinstituting an all-female board of trustees, restricting some guard duties to women, and installing new cameras to monitor areas by the end of June.

“I also bring a new approach to modern-day corrections led by a philosophy that focuses on the holistic rehabilitation of individuals,” Hicks said.

He also touted the consolidation at the beginning of this year of the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility and Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, which is expected to save $13 million by transferring young offenders and staff. And he said he is exploring ways to reduce overtime expenses, which are a perennial issue.

Hicks faced some questions on security at Mahan and a number of other issues, including the difficulties encountered by inmates who serve their full sentences before release. Hicks said about 40% of the 8,000 people released each year have “maxed out” and are not subject to probationary supervision.

“I don’t want to minimize what we do for them,” Hicks said, explaining that officials begin working with inmates six months prior to their release as part of a “comprehensive discharge planning process.” Still, he added that there may be “some opportunity to do something more with the maxed-out population.”

Over the last two years, legislators have been keenly focused on what happens behind prison walls and once inmates are released through the re-entry process. On Thursday, Murphy signed a couple of the bills recently passed that are designed to help in both those areas.

He signed the Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act (A-3979), which he said will make it easier for incarcerated parents to keep in touch with their family and, specifically, improve prison conditions for incarcerated pregnant women.

“For too long, our criminal justice system has not fully taken into account the circumstances of imprisoned parents and imprisoned pregnant women,” Murphy said in a statement, adding that the bill will “ensure that incarcerated caretakers are given the support and services they need to build and maintain strong connections with their families, preparing them to return to their communities.”

Incarcerated parent policies

The bill requires Hicks and the heads of each county correctional facility to adopt certain policies, some of which may have been implemented already, including:

  • Place primary caretaker parent inmates in a facility as close to their children as possible;
  • Prohibit solitary confinement of pregnant inmates and prevent the use of restraints during labor;
  • Provide parenting classes and trauma-informed care for inmates;
  • Permit former inmates to serve as mentors to incarcerated parents and support them with re-entry efforts.

Murphy also signed into law a bill (S-2055)  that makes prisoners eligible for state financial aid to take college classes while still incarcerated.

“At Raritan Valley Community College, we have now graduated well over 100 currently and formerly incarcerated students, and we have 500 to 600 enrolled in our courses,” said Sheila Meiman, director of returning and incarcerated student education at the community college. “When our students graduate in prison, their families see college in a new light. The intergenerational impact of this program is real and will make New Jersey a more resilient, safer and more economically vibrant state for years to come.”

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