Lawsuit: Inmates in NJ county jail strip-searched illegally

The plaintiffs allege they were publicly searched in front of officers, inmates several times a day

Matt Gray
NJ Advance Media

SALEM COUNTY, N.J. — Four people who were held at Salem County Correctional Facility claim they were improperly classified as suicide risks, required to wear garments that exposed their genitals and were strip searched several times a day in view of other prisoners and officers.

Attorneys representing them hope to make their lawsuit alleging illegal strip searches at the facility a class-action case.

A motion for class-action status will be heard in December.

The plaintiffs - Dana Clark-Stevenson, of Salem County, Mark Hendricks, of Gloucester County, and Cumberland County residents Kenneth Fuqua and Darius Snead - allege they were subjected to humiliating conditions and that their civil rights were violated during their unrelated stays at the facility.

The suit, originally filed in 2017, names Salem County and jail Warden John S. Cuzzupe.

The county is following state regulations for handling prisoners, Cuzzupe said Tuesday, adding that the jail is inspected annually by the state and is in compliance.

“The county has taken the position that we’re doing things appropriately with regard to their claims of strip searching and classifying inmates at risk,” Cuzzupe said Tuesday. “It’s not like we’re doing something different than anybody else. It’s all approved by the state.”

Clark-Stevenson was jailed for two six-day stints in 2016 and 2017, first for missing a municipal court date in a non-indictable matter and the second time for failing to pay a municipal fine, according to the suit.

She claims she was strip searched prior to admission to general population, classified as suicidal “for no apparent reason,” made to wear garments that exposed her private parts, was routinely strip searched up to three times a day “absent any penological purpose” and subjected to these searches in a public setting.

Searches were conducted in her cell, where a glass window meant other prisoners and male officers could see what was happening, according to the lawsuit, and a camera in the cell allowed male officers in other locations at the jail to see her.

Those classified as suicidal are issued “turtle suits,” an anti-suicide smock that fastens with Velcro. The garments at Salem jail were worn out “because of the sheer volume of individuals misclassified” and didn’t close properly, the suit alleges, leaving the plaintiffs’ genitals exposed.

Fuqua was arrested in 2016 for an outstanding warrant and spent 10 days at the jail. Snead was jailed in 2017 for failing to pay a $250 municipal fine. Both make similar claims about being classified as suicidal for no valid reason, having to wear the turtle suits and being subjected to the repeated searches.

Hendricks worked in the jail kitchen during his 2015 stay and was subjected to a strip search after each shift, even though the jail had procedures in place to ensure that all kitchen utensils were accounted for when prisoners completed their duties. Those searches occurred in view of his fellow workers, according to the suit. He was also strip searched each time he was taken to court, again in the presence of other detainees.

The plaintiffs say the jail’s system for determining if a prisoner is suicidal is illegal.

“Salem County’s classification system failed to follow New Jersey law in determining whether someone was a threat to himself or others,” they claim, adding that strip-searching detainees charged with non-indictable offenses, conducting daily strip searches for no valid reason and failing to provide adequate garments in the “suicide unit” violates the state constitution.

If approved as a class action, the class would include anyone subjected to a non-private strip search at the jail, those charged with a non-indictable offense who were strip searched, those classified as suicidal and female prisoners who were strip searched in the presence of male corrections officers or searched while in a cell where a camera feed could be viewed by male officers elsewhere in the facility.

The suit alleges there are hundreds “if not thousands” of people improperly classified as suicidal and improperly subjected to strip searches in view of other prisoners, staff and cameras. The class-action period described in the suit begins in April 2015.

In a brief arguing against class status, attorneys for the county argued that the claims should be severed since each case is different.

“Each were incarcerated at different points in time, for different offenses, and subject to searches based on their individual characteristics,” attorney Brian H. Leinhauser wrote. “Allowing the four plaintiffs to proceed in a single lawsuit will only serve to prejudice the defendants should this case go to trial by permitting the jury to hear testimony on unproven allegations regarding the necessity to conduct a strip search based on individualized assessments of plaintiffs.”

The plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, along with an injunction barring jail officials from continuing the practices alleged in the suit.

The three attorneys for the plaintiffs either didn’t return calls for comment or declined to comment on the case.

The county previously asked the state Attorney General to defend it against the lawsuit, but the office declined. The county appealed that ruling and lost earlier this month. The appellate court found that the administration of the county jail, including development and implementation of search procedures “are the exclusive responsibility of the county.”

The allegations in this suit are similar to those described in another claim against the jail that was filed earlier this year in state Superior Court. In that case, a Mullica Hill woman was arrested for leaving the scene of a traffic stop and jailed for two days in 2017.

During that time, she alleged she was placed on suicide watch status without proper evaluation by a licensed mental health professional, required to wear an anti-suicide smock and subjected to three

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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