N.J. loses attempt to toss out female inmates' rights lawsuit


By RICK HEPP
The Star-Ledger

NEWARK, N.J. — A judge yesterday denied the state's request to throw out a lawsuit by female inmates who allege they are held in "lock-down conditions" at New Jersey's maximum-security prison, finding the claim, "if later found to be true, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment."

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a civil rights lawsuit in December on behalf of 40 women who were sent in March 2007 to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton to alleviate overcrowding at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton.

The women say they are kept in cells for up to 22 hours a day because the prison must separate them from the facility's 1,800 male inmates. As a result, the women claim they cannot access to the prison's law library and school, must receive medical attention in an open area of their unit as prison guards watch and are barred from the men's prison yard. They have also been subjected to catcalls from male inmates as well as views of prisoners exposing themselves.

State attorneys for the Department of Corrections have denied the allegations and said the women get the same treatment as male inmates. They also introduced a statement from a senior corrections officer on the unit who said "female prisoners have adjusted and are content."

In her ruling, Superior Court Judge Maria Sypek said the opposing views of the situation required the court to allow the lawsuit to continue.

"Plaintiffs raise a number of significant genuine issues of material fact as to the general conditions of confinement, and specific actions or inaction on the part of the defendants, which if later found to be true, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment," Sypek said. "A fact-finding record is necessary in order to analyze all of these allegations and reach a conclusion as to what, if any, constitutional and civil rights are being violated."

Sypek also certified the case as a class-action lawsuit and granted the ACLU's request to keep the department from transferring any more general population female prisoners to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

Ed Barocas, the ACLU legal director, called the ruling "a great first step."

"When the court issues its final ruling we expect to see a permanent stop to the arbitrary transfer of women to the men's prison, an end to their inhumane conditions and the DOC penalized for its wrongdoing," he said in a statement.

Lee Moore, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, which is handling the case for Corrections, said their attorneys are reviewing the rulings and declined further comment.

Copyright 2008 Newark Morning Ledger Co.

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