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Class Action Certified in Pennsylvania Jail Gender Discrimination Suit

by David M. Reutter and Matt Clarke

A civil rights case alleging Berks County, Pennsylvania denied equal protection to female prisoners classified as trustees has been certified as a class action. After issuing a preliminary injunction to two different prisoners, the federal district court found that piecemeal injunctions for short-term prisoners was not the answer.

The complaint challenged the disparity in treatment of female and male prisoners classified as having trustee status at the Berks County Prison. Prisoners with that status are allowed to work in the community and charged $50 per week for the privilege of doing so. That is the only similarity in the conditions of male and female trustees.

Male trustees are housed in a separate Community Reentry Center “with, among other benefits, dorm-style unlocked cells attached to community day rooms, thirteen hours of daily recreation time, unlimited access to toilets/showers, meals served in a community day room, less risk of lockdown” and several reentry programs.

Female trustees, by contrast, are held at the main jail with “locked cells, no more than six hours of daily recreation, limited access to toilets/showers, meals served in [the] cell, more lockdowns, and fewer” reentry programs, the district court found.

The court rejected the county’s argument that costs and staffing issues justified the disparate treatment. It held the women trustees were entitled to equal protection and similar housing conditions, and noted the county may have to make structural adjustments to allow women to be housed in one of the four wings at the Community Reentry Center.

“Berks County does not adequately justify its reasons for this substantially different treatment of the lowest risk [trustees] working in our community on work release based on chromosomes,” the district court wrote.

On January 15, 2019, the court entered a preliminary injunction that required Berks County to provide trustee Theresa A. Victory with similar privileges to those afforded male trustees. Days later, her sentence came to an end; she had also alleged that guards retaliated against her for filing grievances over the disparate treatment of female trustees.

The district court entered a similar order in May 2019 for trustee Alice Velazquez-Diaz. Then, on July 11, 2019, it certified the case as a class action.

Earlier that week, the court issued a contempt order against Berks County for failing to submit a plan to meet all of the injunction requirements. That order required the county to pay Velazquez-Diaz $500 in damages plus $6,751 in attorney fees due to her efforts to enforce the injunction.

The defendants appealed the class certification order to the Third Circuit and their appeal remains pending. Meanwhile, in August 2019, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction to compel the county to implement an equal protection plan for all class members. That order was stayed pending the outcome of the appeal, however.

Victory, who later married and changed her surname to Bohning, said she is “continuing to fight this issue in federal court and am so happy that now more women have decided to pursue legal action to hold the prison accountable for the sexual discrimination that happens behind closed doors.”

The 15 class members, designated as all current and future female trustees denied assignment to the Community Reentry Center and denied access to the privileges, services and programs available to male trustees, are represented by the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. See: Victory v. Berks County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Penn.), Case No. 5:18-cv-05170-MAK. 

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Additional source: readingeagle.com

Related legal case

Victory v. Berks County