By Michael Testa
It’s time for a change.
Marcus Hicks should step down as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Correction, and if he doesn’t, Governor Murphy should fire him.
The commissioner has lost the confidence of corrections officers across the state, and his ineffective leadership during the pandemic created unnecessary risk to the health and lives of inmates, guards and other employees, as well as the families they go home to.
According to a report from NJ Advance Media, “At least two officers and 19 inmates have died from the virus. … The prison system has directed officers to find their own tests, and Testa cited a recent NJ.com story about one officer and many inmates who said they were improperly denied tests as cause for concern.”
Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, and that’s a big part of the overall problem. Most recent numbers from the state show 42 prison deaths as of May 15.
NJDOC has failed to protect its inmates, correction officers and the communities where the officers live with their families.
Last Month, I called for an investigation into DOC’s handling of the virus, and urged the department to implement extensive COVID-19 management plans.
Due to close confines of the prison system and the extremely contagious nature of COVID-19, the health of all who work or are incarcerated in NJDOC’s facilities must be the highest priority. This is a potentially fatal illness that must be contained effectively.
The commissioner failed to prioritize the health conditions inside the prisons or control the rampant spread of the contagion. He did little to plan and prepare for the pandemic even after it was crystal clear the virus would wreak havoc within the walls of state prisons. These failures leave the walls when Correction Officers end their shift go home to their families, and need to pick of groceries from our local stores.
There have been plenty of warning signs along the way, but Hicks was unwavering in his disinterest.
The situation within our prisons – sickness and death on both sides of the bars – was already well out of control when the governor, after stumbling through a daily briefing, committed to testing all prison employees and inmates on April 30.
That would require more than 25,000 tests, yet only 609 tests had been conducted by May 15, with almost 90 percent coming back positive.
Rather than responding to the urgency, the commissioner simply continued to drag his feet.
It is inexcusable and indefensible. And as a result, New Jersey is paying the price.
The virus is firmly entrenched in our facilities, and employees – corrections officers, health care professionals, food services and maintenance staff – are, unfortunately, tracking the bug to their homes and communities.
This all could have been prevented with more aggressive, proactive leadership.
Under Commissioner Hicks’ watch, the department has been accused of mistreating employees and barring inmates from speaking to the media.
In order to restore the public’s faith in the corrections system, change is required.
It’s time for Commissioner Hicks to step down. If he refuses, the Governor should make a change. Either way, we can’t afford to continue on this path to failure any longer.”
An editorial published today in The Star-Ledger under the headline “The virus has turned NJ prisons into death houses” said “the governor must either get the phlegmatic DOC commissioner to get his department moving, or replace him. The Legislature should begin hearings — the Senate already is looking into the rape factory at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, another DOC matter that the Murphy Administration has yet to address with any urgency or transparency, with Hicks refusing to even show up to testify.”
The editorial concluded: “It was clear since March that the virus would erupt in any place where social distancing is a rumor and hygiene is a myth. Months later, the lives of inmates and corrections personnel are still in terrible jeopardy. The governor must act now.”
Senator Testa of Legislative District 1 serving all of Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties.