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NJ agreed to put transgender inmate in women’s prison. Not so fast, say COs’ unions

Unions argue the prison system doesn’t have clear policies for how staff should supervise transgender inmates

By S.P. Sullivan
NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ — Corrections officials in New Jersey are preparing to move a transgender woman who spent more than a year shuttled between men’s prisons to a facility for women amid a lawsuit alleging the prisoner was relentlessly harassed by inmates and staff.

But the transfer, scheduled for next week, could be stalled because of a legal challenge brought by the state’s corrections officers unions, which argues the prison system doesn’t have clear policies for how staff should supervise transgender inmates.

The case thrusts New Jersey into a national debate over the rights of transgender prisoners, who make up a small fraction of the overall prison population but often have to deal with harassment and conflicting policies behind bars, according to civil rights advocates.

At its center is Sonia Doe, the prisoner who filed a civil rights lawsuit in August under a pseudonym after the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union took up her case.

Doe, whose New Jersey drivers license lists her as female and who has been receiving hormone therapy for more than a decade, was placed in a male prison when she began serving a sentence for drug-related crimes in March 2018, according to her lawsuit.

There, she claimed, she endured abuse and harassment from inmates and prison staff — and alleged she was beaten by a group of corrections officers at Northern State Prison in Newark in retaliation for filing formal complaints.

New Jersey’s prison system has a committee that reviews requests from transgender inmates to change their housing assignments. In Doe’s lawsuit, lawyers for the prisoner contend the state has an unofficial policy of making housing assignments based solely on an inmate’s genitalia.

According to Doe’s lawsuit, only two other transgender inmates are currently housed at the women’s prison – both of whom underwent gender reassignment surgery. Doe has not undergone such a procedure.

Weeks after the suit was filed, attorneys for the state said they would relocate the prisoner from South Woods State Prison to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women while the case worked its way through the courts.

But on Tuesday, two of the state’s corrections officers unions, PBA 105 and New Jersey Law Enforcement Supervisors Association, filed separate lawsuits and asked a judge to stall the transfer.

Frank Crivelli, an attorney for the unions, said the corrections officers are concerned that unclear policies on how to treat transgender inmates could open them up to lawsuits or internal discipline.

The unions also raised concerns about the state’s strip-search policy, which requires that inmates only be searched by officers of the same gender except in “exigent circumstances.”

Crivelli said in a phone interview Wednesday that the prison system has long housed transgender inmates and argued the department’s decision to move Doe to a female facility in the face of a lawsuit was not an extraordinary circumstance.

“This is a lack of planning,” he said.

The unions’ suit seeks to postpone the transfer or to keep Doe out of the general population until the state enacts formal policies for how officers should supervise and search transgender prisoners.

It’s unclear whether the legal action will delay Doe’s scheduled relocation. Spokesmen for the Department of Corrections and the state Attorney General’s Office, which is handling the lawsuit, declined to comment.

One of Doe’s attorneys, ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, said they would seek to intervene in the union lawsuits “so that her interests can be adequately represented.”

Corrections officials around the country have been grappling in recent years with how to house transgender prisoners, who have typically been placed in facilities corresponding with their assigned gender at birth unless they had undergone reassignment surgery.

Advocates argue such policies aren’t in line with the consensus of medical and mental health professionals regarding gender identity, and corrections officials are increasingly reexamining how they treat transgender prisoners – often in response to civil rights suits.

In the last year, authorities in Illinois, Oregon and Massachusetts have agreed to relocate transgender inmates amid legal challenges. Officials in New Jersey are weighing how to change policies ranging from pronoun use to search and privacy procedures, according to an e-mail between corrections staff and the unions’ attorney reviewed by NJ Advance Media.

Corrections officials have declined to say how many transgender inmates are currently behind bars, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

The state’s top female lawmaker, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, has called on Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to investigate the treatment of transgender prisoners. A spokesman for Grewal declined to comment on that request.

©2019 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

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