New Jersey inmates will now be housed according to their gender identity as part of a settlement of a civil rights suit brought by a woman who was forced to live in men’s prisons for 18 months.
The woman, identified in court documents by the pseudonym Sonia Doe, was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and Robyn Gigl, an attorney with the private law firm Gluck Walrath LLP.
Doe — a transgender woman whose New Jersey driver’s license reflects her female gender and name — was “subject to discrimination, verbal and sexual harassment, and physical assault” for being housed in men’s prisons, according to the complaint.
After she entered prison in March 2018 for offenses stemming from an addiction to painkillers, Doe was housed in four different men’s prisons — even though the state’s Department of Corrections knew she was a transgender woman.
During this time Doe alleges she was forced to live as a man, and was discriminated against because of her gender identity. She was misgendered, physically assaulted and also denied female commissary items, the complaint stated.
“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.
The lawsuit was filed against the New Jersey Department of Corrections and its officers in August 2019. As part of the settlement announced Tuesday, New Jersey has agreed to adopt a system-wide policy that includes housing in line with gender identity, and not sex assigned at birth.
According to the ACLU-NJ, only a few other states in the nation have such protections in place.
“The settlement of this lawsuit puts in place systemic, far-reaching policy changes to recognize and respect the gender identity of people in prison — with housing based on gender identity, use of appropriate pronouns, access to gender-affirming property, and much more,” Tess Borden, a staff attorney with the ACLU-NJ, said.
“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,” Borden added.
The settlement will also require all NJDOC corrections officers to sign an acknowledgement that they have read the updated policy.
A policy that “explicitly recognizes the dignity” of trans, intersex and nonbinary inmates represents a “new chapter” at the department, said Gigl.
“While we know trans, intersex, and nonbinary people still face extraordinary risk of harm, it is our hope that this policy will shepherd in a new era in New Jersey prisons of protecting and affirming transgender, intersex, and nonbinary people’s lives,” she added.
In addition to the policy change, the department will pay Doe $125,000 in damages, and will also pay her attorney fees.
While she still has nightmares about her ordeal, Doe said that she’s relieved 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.”
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