New Jersey DOC on Prison Conditions: We Meant to Fix Them

Even prisons must offer reasonable standards of living, evidenced by a New Jersey appeals court’s recent ruling about cruel and unfair prison conditions.  The court ruled in favor of a group of female inmates and ended the 2007 case of Jones v. Hayman, which began when the New Jersey Department of Corrections moved 40 female prisoners from a medium-security women’s prison to a small enclave within a maximum-security men’s prison.  Although the women were reportedly well behaved, they were still locked in their cells for 22 hours each day and were barred from the prison’s school and medical center.

The ACLU filed suit on behalf of the female prisoners.  Early victories led to the Department of Corrections transferring the inmates back to the women’s prison; however, the trial judge then dismissed the claim because the problem was solved.  The judge accepted the Department of Corrections’ assertions that the female inmates were only temporarily placed in the men’s prison; that the department always intended to move them.  The judge also denied the request to recover the time and cost of bringing suit against the government, because although the issue resolved in the inmates’ favor, the court had not provided a formal victory.

The most recent appellate court ruling claimed the trial judge had misinterpreted the law.  It found that a civil rights victory did not require a formal court order, only a victory in practice.  The appellate court went so far as to rebuke the trial judge for accepting the Department of Corrections’ response, stating that the government cannot excuse—and avoid paying for—civil rights violations simply by saying it had always planned to correct its actions.  By this ruling, not only must inmates be given reasonable living conditions, but judges must also be wary of blanket acceptance of government actions.

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