After suit, New Jersey to house inmates based on gender ID

New Jersey’s prison system is about to begin housing inmates based on gender identity, the result of a lawsuit filed in 2019 by a transgender woman who said she was forced to live in men’s prisons for a year and a half.

The new policy goes into effect July 1 and provides greater protections for transgender, intersex and nonbinary people in state prisons, most importantly by housing them based on the gender they identify with rather than by sex assigned at birth. Inmates can provide information about their gender identity at any time during their incarceration, under the policy.

Other protections include single-cell housing while final housing determinations are being made; being able to shower separately from other inmates; the right to have input into housing decision and to appeal those decisions, and a prohibition of physical examinations to determine an inmate’s genital status. Pat-down searches or strip searches by transgender women by male officers will be prohibited.

The policy will be maintained for at least one year, according to the settlement.

“This policy places New Jersey in the vanguard of states committed to protecting transgender, intersex, and nonbinary people in prison housing determinations and continues its path toward eliminating discrimination based on gender identity,” said Tess Borden, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey, which represented the woman along with attorney Robyn Gigl.

Under terms of the settlement, the woman, identified in court papers as Sonia Doe, will receive $125,000 in damages and $45,000 for attorneys’ fees, and won’t face any sanctions in connection with an assault that occurred in prison in May 2019.

“When I was forced to live in men’s prisons, I was terrified I wouldn’t make it out alive. Those memories still haunt me,” Doe said in a statement. “Though I still have nightmares about that time, it’s a relief to know that as a result of my experience the NJDOC has adopted substantial policy changes so no person should be subjected to the horrors I survived.”

The New Jersey Department of Corrections didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

The change comes at a time when New Jersey is grappling with reports of widespread abuses and systemic failures at its only women’s prison, the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton.

Ten prison guards face criminal charges stemming from an alleged assault on inmates, including a transgender woman, in January. Several corrections officers at the prison have pleaded guilty or been convicted of sexual abuse and misconduct in recent years, and last year a Department of Justice report concluded officials failed to take action to prevent rampant abuse at the facility despite being aware of systemic problems.

Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks resigned this month, a day after Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said he would close the prison.

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