by Jayson Hawkins
The New Jersey Department of Corrections had a policy of housing prisoners according to their gender assignment at birth, regardless of whether they are transgender or of any non-binary sexual orientation. As a result, when Sonia Doe (not her real name) was sentenced to prison, she was sent to a male prison in 2018, even though she had publicly lived as a woman since 2003.
From March 2018 to August 2019, Doe was housed in four different men’s prisons, subjected to strip searches by male guards, lived constantly under the threat of sexual assault by other prisoners, and was repeatedly ridiculed and harassed by prison staff.
The New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) operated a policy for transgender and intersex prisoners based on the mandates of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and state legislation. This policy mandated identifying prisoners in these categories, assessing their risk level, addressing them with proper pronouns, and housing them in a manner consistent with their safety and the general security of the institution.
What Doe encountered when she was processed into NJDOC was not at all consistent with the department’s stated policy. She was asked questions related to gender identity, but NJDOC housed her with male prisoners. On multiple occasions, she was harassed, forced to strip in front of male prisoners, and threatened with sexual assault. Despite the department’s policy, Doe found that transgender housing was based solely upon a prisoner’s genitalia. Hormone medications like those Doe had been taking since 2003 were routinely curtailed or denied.
After filing dozens of complaints over the course of a year and repeatedly attempting to be transferred to a female prison, Doe filed a complaint in the New Jersey Superior Court seeking to enjoin NJDOC from discriminating against her on the basis of gender and seeking compensation and punitive damages for the more than seventeen months of “verbal and sexual harassment, physical assault, and continuous discrimination, including being housed in conditions of prolonged solitary confinement.”
On June 28, 2021, NJDOC and Sonia Doe entered into a settlement agreement that includes a new NJDOC policy on transgender, intersex, and non-binary prisoners; $125,000 in monetary damages for Doe; $45,000 in attorney fees for her ACLU attorneys; and the restoration of lost commutation time that stemmed from a disciplinary case lodged against Doe after she was assaulted.
The agreed policy changes significantly amend the existing NJDOC procedures for housing transgendered prisoners as well as changes in regard to searches, medical care, and personal respect. In terms of housing, the department will now have a multi-stage review to determine if a prisoner’s gender identity deviates from that assigned at birth, and if so, whether the deviation presents a health or safety risk if they were assigned housing based on presumptive gender classifications. If the department determines that special considerations must be made, a PREA Accommodation Committee will review the prisoner’s situation based on a dozen criteria, provide the transgender prisoner with a hearing to determine appropriate housing, allow the prisoner an opportunity to present the committee with additional information, and provide a written record of the subsequent decision and rationale. If the prisoner does not agree with the decision, he may appeal to the commissioner.
Additional elements of the settlement include guarantees that non-gender conforming prisoners will not be compelled to shower with prisoners of a different sex, nor will they be strip searched by guards of the opposite sex. Guards and other staff will also be required to use pronouns consistent with a prisoner’s gender identity.
Sonia Doe says she is still haunted by her time as a prisoner, but in a statement announcing the settlement, she said, “It’s a relief to know that as a result of my experience the NJDOC has adopted a substantial policy change so no person should subjected to the horrors I survived.” See: Sonia Doe v. New Jersey Dept. of Corrections et al, Superior Court of New Jersey Law Division-Mercer County, Docket No. MER-L-1586-19.
Source: npr.org, NJDOC Internal Management Procedure
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Related legal case
Sonia Doe v. New Jersey Dept. of Corrections et al
|Superior Court of New Jersey Law Division-Mercer County, Docket No. MER-L-1586-19