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New Jersey: Class-Action Status Granted in Suit Challenging Conditions of Confinement at Passaic County Jail

On May 28, 2009, a U.S. District Court granted class-action status to prisoners seeking declaratory and injunctive relief for unconstitutional conditions of confinement at the Passaic County Jail (PCJ) in Paterson, New Jersey. At the same time, the court denied a motion to dismiss filed by defendant George Hayman, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections. Hayman had argued that as a matter of law, he could not be held responsible for conditions at the 50-year-old facility.

“The law is clear that the system-wide failures at Passaic County Jail warrant class-action status, and we are pleased with the court’s decision,” said Emily Goldberg, a visiting assistant clinical professor at the Center for Social Justice at Seton Hall Law School, who represents the class members along with the ACLU of New Jersey. The class consists of “all persons who are now or will become incarcerated at PCJ during the pendency of this lawsuit” – a group of plaintiffs that could number into the thousands.

The complaint, originally filed in September 2008 by eight current and former PCJ prisoners, alleges First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations, specifically that PCJ suffers from 1) overcrowding with a resulting lack of privacy, loss of sleep and threat of prisoner violence; 2) unsanitary living conditions; 3) inadequate medical care; 4) inadequate and nutritionally deficient food; 5) inadequate heating, cooling and ventilation; 6) inadequate clothing; 7) inadequate fire detec-tion and alarm systems; 8) excessive use of force by jail staff, including the use of dogs for intimidation; 9) restrictions on religious freedom; and 10) retaliation for filing grievances.
Although PCJ was designed to house approximately 900 prisoners, it has held as many as 2,000. There have been a number of MRSA outbreaks at the facility.

The district court had no difficulty in finding that the requirements for class certification outlined in Rule 23 of the Fed-eral Rules of Civil Procedure were satisfied; i.e., numerosity, commonality, typicality, adequacy of representation, and that the defendants had “acted or refused to act on grounds generally applicable to the class.” The lawsuit remains pending. See: Colon v. Passaic County, U.S.D.C. (D. N.J.), Case No. 2:08-cv-04439-DMC-MF.

PCJ has an inglorious past. More than 30 years ago, prisoners filed suit challenging their conditions of confinement, al-leging virtually the same deplorable conditions described in the current class-action complaint. See: Valentine v. Englehardt, U.S.D.C. (D. N.J.), Case No. 78-cv-00270. Despite a comprehensive settlement that called for vast improvements, condi-tions did not in fact improve. In 1982, 18 months after the settlement, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Keane toured PCJ and said the facility was “an embarrassment.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General began an investigation into conditions at PCJ in 2005; the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office was uncooperative and ejected the federal investigators from the jail. That same year, all immigration detainees were removed from PCJ. In 2007, U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Hayden de-scribed conditions at the facility as so “shameful” that they constituted punishment and justified a sentence reduction for a federal prisoner held at the jail. See: United States v. Sutton, U.S.D.C. (D. N.J.), Case No. 2:07-cr-00426-KSH; 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79518.

As a result of Judge Hayden’s decision, all federal detainees were removed from PCJ in 2008. In responding to the current class-action suit, Passaic County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Bill Maer said, “This lawsuit is a rehash of accusa-tions that the department has seen before.
They’re generally based on the opinions of individuals who are incarcerated, and nobody likes to be in jail.” Especially when the jail has conditions of confinement as abysmal as those at PCJ, appar-ently.

Additional sources: Associated Press, ACLU of New Jersey,

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Related legal case

Colon v. Passaic County