In Brief

Groups demand protections for transgender inmates in county jails

By: - August 27, 2021 7:00 am

The results since New Jersey passed a major criminal justice reform bill show “we got it right,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and Garden State Equality on Thursday urged officials running jails in New Jersey’s 21 counties to house inmates by their gender identity, not the gender they were assigned at birth.

The civil rights groups, which made their plea in a letter to the state’s jail wardens, noted the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) recently adopted such a policy, which the groups said should serve as a model for county corrections officials.

The state’s policy change was not made proactively. It came as the result of a settlement between the DOC and a transgender woman who sued for discrimination because the agency housed her in four different men’s prisons after she entered the system in March 2018. Prison officials knew she identified as female.

The woman, who went by the pseudonym Sonia Doe in court filings, settled the case in June for $125,000, plus lawyers’ fees. The settlement required the DOC to make systemwide changes, including:

  • Housing inmates according to their gender identity
  • Adding questions about gender identity and pronouns to intake and identification procedures
  • Prohibiting harassment and discrimination by staff and requiring staff to use appropriate pronouns
  • Providing undergarments and other clothing in line with an inmate’s gender identity
  • Heightening privacy protections by adding separate showers and banning cross-gender strip and pat-down searches of transgender women by male officers
  • Providing medical and mental health treatment, including gender-affirming care
  • Updating protocols, training staff, and informing inmates about the new protections

The settlement illustrates that the state’s anti-discrimination law applies to all “places of public accommodation” including county jails, according to the letter signed by ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero and Garden State Equality Executive Director Christian Fuscarino.

“Taking steps to ensure transgender people in custody are respected in housing decisions, interactions with correctional staff, and other aspects of their lives in jail is a legal requirement,” the letter warns. “It is also good public policy.”

The letter was sent to county jail wardens, the New Jersey Association of Counties, and the New Jersey County Jail Warden’s Association.

John G. Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said Friday that county jail wardens will adopt the protections ordered in the DOC settlement.

“The county jail wardens meet and communicate on regular basis to discuss best practices, and all will make sure to comply with the new protocols to ensure that ‘transgender people in custody are respected in housing decisions, interactions with correctional staff, and other aspects of their lives in jail,’ as noted in the letter,” Donnadio said.

Only a few other U.S. states have such protections in place, according to the ACLU-NJ.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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