September 3, 2008
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Newark, NJ - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and Seton Hall University School of Law's Center for Social Justice (CSJ) today Filed A Class Action Lawsuit against Passaic County for unconstitutional conditions at the Passaic County Jail.

"The Passaic County Jail is notorious for its deplorable conditions. There are people in Passaic County Jail who have not been convicted of any crime, yet they are living in extremely dangerous and unsanitary conditions," said Emily B. Goldberg, CSJ visiting assistant clinical professor. "Everyone knows how horrendous the situation at Passaic County Jail is, yet jail and county officials have been allowed to get away with it for decades. The lawsuit filed today is intended to send a strong message: It is time for those responsible to face the music and starting cleaning up the conditions at Passaic County Jail immediately."

The suit was filed on behalf of pre-trial detainees - people who have been arrested but not yet tried or convicted - and inmates awaiting sentencing who have suffered from overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions.

The jail, designed to hold 896 inmates, routinely squeezes in over 1,700 through revenue-generating contracts with other agencies, including a current contract to house inmates from overcrowded prisons in Philadelphia. Inmates, locked in cells for 23 hours a day, are forced to eat, sleep and perform bodily functions all in the same room. The units, which are infested with rodents and insects, have inadequate ventilation and heating systems. The inmates endure oppressive temperatures in summer and freezing temperatures in winter, with insufficient clothing to keep them warm - only one thin, short-sleeved uniform is issued to inmates. Local fire officials have testified in court that the jail's lack of emergency detection alarms and fire-fighting systems has reached "crisis proportions."

Earlier this year, the U.S. Marshals Service removed all federal detainees from PCJ after United States District Court Judge Katharine S. Hayden issued a ruling that found the jail's conditions so horrendous as to be punitive. Judge Hayden, calling the conditions "shameful," gave two federal criminal defendants shorter prison sentences because of the time they were detained at PCJ.

"The conditions at PCJ are an affront to human decency," said Christopher Michie, of the law firm Dechert LLP, who is the cooperating attorney handling the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. "For years, the Passaic County Freeholders have received millions upon millions of dollars to house inmates at PCJ. Instead of using that money to expand the facility or to build a new one, they have used it to balance the County budget. At the same time, these men and women are forced to live like animals. The County has a legal and moral obligation to treat people humanely. This appalling situation has to be brought to an end."

The case is captioned Angel Colon v. Passaic County.

Issue: Prisons