A Win For Women Prisoners, A Win For All

Today, an appeals court in New Jersey handed down a major win for the ACLU and its clients — a group of women prisoners who stood up against cruel and discriminatory prison conditions. The court's decision was also a rebuke to government officials who say whatever they can to escape liability, and to judges who won't hold officials accountable. What's more, the court also set out legal rules that, in its own words, help "afford access to the judicial process to persons who have little or no money with which to hire a lawyer," and add "substantive meaning to our commitment to the principle of justice for all citizens."

The case, Jones v. Hayman, began in 2007, when the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) moved about 40 women prisoners from a women's prison to an oppressive "prison-within-a-prison," inside a men's maximum security prison. There the women — who were well-behaved medium-security prisoners — suffered under appalling conditions, including being locked in their cells for 22 hours a day, and barred from the prison's medical care center and school. They were charged about $25 for a single phone call to their children, while they earned about $2 a day working prison jobs.

The ACLU took up the women's cause and filed suit. After months of fierce court battles in which we won victory after victory, the government folded, sending all of the women back to the women's prison for good. But then, the trial judge dismissed our case because the problem was solved, and denied our request to be reimbursed by the government for the time and cost of bringing the civil rights lawsuit. The judge claimed that we hadn't won the suit because we didn't have a formal court order saying we had won. The judge also accepted the government's after-the-fact assertions that it had intended to move the women out of those horrible conditions all along.

We appealed, and today, we won. The New Jersey Appellate Division court said that the trial judge was wrong on the law. It affirmed that winning doesn't just mean having a piece of paper from a court, but also means winning in the real world, by bringing an end to civil rights violations being suffered by real people. The court went further, saying that government can't avoid paying for its rights violations just by saying that it planned from the start to correct itself. And the court faulted the trial judge for "accepting at face value" the government's convenient explanations. In effect, it warned every judge in the state against rubber-stamping official actions.

We know that civil rights violations always fall most heavily on marginalized people, including people without much money. At the same time, it's hard for poor people to find lawyers to help them hold the government accountable. Civil rights laws across the country recognize that Catch-22 by making the government pay the lawyers of winning civil rights plaintiffs. If the court had gone the other way, "winning" would have meant "winning when the government admits it was backed into a corner by a lawsuit," — something the government rarely does. Happily, this case came out the right way. Chalk up one for civil rights, justice and common sense.

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