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Keeping Civil Rights a Reality in New Jersey

Mie Lewis,
Women's Rights Project
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October 28, 2010

In December 2007, the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) moved about 40 women prisoners from the state’s sole women’s prison to a unit within an enormous men’s maximum security prison. In that prison-within-a-prison, the women suffered degrading and discriminatory conditions, including 22 hour lockdown, and denials of medical care, privacy, and basic sanitation. Even the little windows of the women’s cells were painted over, making the cells into dim caves.

We filed suit, and in 2008 won a series of major court victories over the government’s fierce opposition. We survived efforts to have the case thrown out of court, and got the go-ahead to proceed as a class action, meaning we represented all women prisoners, present and future, held in the men’s prison. The court also banned any more transfers of women to the men’s prison for the duration of the case.

These victories weren’t without costs. As often happens in prison lawsuits, prisoners who stood up for their rights became targets for abuse. We requested court sanctions against corrections officials after evidence emerged that they had offered some women reductions in their disciplinary sentences in exchange for false statements describing prison conditions as better than they were, and had used the false statements as evidence in court. After one of those prisoners told the ACLU about the witness tampering, she was brutally beaten by a guard, according to her sworn statement and those of three other women prisoners.

In spite of all this, the women did not back down. Finally, under pressure from the lawsuit, the DOC closed the abusive unit and sent all of the women back to the women’s prison. That capitulation was a victory for the women prisoners and for government accountability.

Under New Jersey’s civil rights laws, too, the women had won, and were entitled to recoup the cost of the litigation from the government. Astoundingly, the court ruled that the women had not prevailed, and it let the DOC off the hook for attorneys’ fees and costs.

We appealed that ruling, and yesterday I argued the case before the New Jersey appeals court. Why is this important? It’s because to keep the promise of civil rights a reality, civil rights laws across the country depend on citizens’ groups like the ACLU, as well as private lawyers, to enforce them. As a practical matter, lawyers — especially small private practitioners — can’t take on civil rights cases on behalf of poor people, such as prisoners, unless they have some real chance of having their time and costs compensated if they win. It’s also important because the risk of having to pay attorneys’ fees and costs is an important deterrent to government agencies that might otherwise commit civil rights violations.

How the appeals court decides this case will therefore have major repercussions for the continued vitality of civil rights laws in New Jersey. For the sake of everyone who’s had their civil rights infringed by the government, let’s hope this comes out the right way.

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