Advocates, Civil Rights Groups Urge NJ to Stop Solitary Confinement of Children

July 15, 2013
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ACLU-NJ joins a nationwide movement calling for an end of solitary confinement of juveniles, recognized as a form of torture

TRENTON -- Advocates from across New Jersey today called for the state to end its use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for children in its custody. Nine advocacy groups submitted a petition to Kevin Brown, the Executive Director of New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice Commission, urging the state to adopt new regulations in its treatment of juveniles in their care.

“We hope this petition is just the first part of a productive conversation with New Jersey officials to eliminate the use of solitary confinement of children in state custody,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “At every level of society, we recognize that one-size-fits-all does not work with children, and nowhere is this more critical than in the juvenile justice system. There is no justification for subjecting children to solitary confinement as punishment, period, and New Jersey’s laws must change accordingly.”

A broad coalition of groups – Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the American Friends Service Committee, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, New Jersey Association on Correction, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, People’s Organization for Progress, Rutgers Children’s Justice Clinic and Rutgers Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic – submitted a petition urging New Jersey to end solitary confinement of juveniles, a practice recognized internationally as torture.

“All of the children in New Jersey’s detention centers will be released eventually, no matter how long their sentences, because young people legally cannot receive a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” said Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel. “When young people do rejoin society after incarceration, we have to ask ourselves who we want to emerge: someone capable of living a productive life, or someone who has been psychologically damaged by solitary confinement. For the safety of society, for the safety of corrections officers, and for the long-term health of our young people, solitary confinement of young people needs to end in New Jersey now.”

The groups are proposing changes to the law that would eliminate the state’s authority to isolate juveniles in solitary confinement for five days at a time as a form of punishment or pending a disciplinary hearing. New Jersey law currently allows juveniles to be placed in solitary confinement for up to five days at a time, even though humane alternatives such as graduated sanctions and positive reinforcement exist. Yet one juvenile inmate held in detention in New Jersey spent up to 41 consecutive days in solitary confinement in 2009 according to the lawsuit Troy D. and O’Neill S. v. Mickens et al. The other plaintiff in the case spent more time in solitary confinement awaiting his disciplinary hearing than the actual length of solitary confinement he was given to serve as a result of that hearing.

“Think about the inner turmoil inside every teenager, and then imagine a young person stuck inside a windowless cell, alone, for 23 hours a day,” said Laura Cohen, professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark. “Children occupy a unique place in our society and are more likely to successfully rehabilitate through other, more humane forms of punishment. Solitary confinement is harmful, costly, and doesn’t protect the public.”

The proposal to eliminate long-term solitary confinement would not preclude corrections officials from short-term, structured isolation for protection of adolescents when circumstances demand it.

Several states -- Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Oklahoma and West Virginia -- have banned punitive juvenile solitary confinement outright, and several others, such as Mississippi, have placed strict limitations on the use of the practice. Experts from a range of fields and affiliations, from the Department of Justice to the United Nations, have warned of the deleterious effects solitary confinement has on children.

Advocates in New Jersey call for these changes amid a nationwide movement to end the practice of routinely isolating young people in cells or rooms for 22-24 hours per day. In the past several years, the Supreme Court has issued several decisions reiterating the American legal system’s long-held belief that the most severe punishments – life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and the death penalty – are not appropriate for children given the special circumstances of their developmental stages of life. Studies have shown that solitary confinement can be especially traumatizing to young people because of the tremendous physiological changes they undergo in their adolescence.

Experts across disciplines, from corrections officials to social scientists, have observed that solitary confinement causes or worsens mental health problems in adolescents, and mentally ill children in solitary confinement often lack access to psychological counseling during that period. As a result, the potential for rehabilitation by virtue of their age weakens because of the irreversible harm solitary confinement causes to their intellectual and emotional development.

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Judge Approves Agreement to Overhaul Passaic County Jail's Inhumane Conditions

April 23, 2012
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Agreement includes independent monitor for up to five years

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NEWARK – A federal judge in Newark today approved a settlement of a class action lawsuit filed in 2008 against Passaic County for unconstitutional and inhumane conditions at the Passaic County Jail. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Social Justice (CSJ) on behalf of prisoners at the jail.

The two parties reached a settlement at the end of 2011. Today, U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh accepted the agreement in court, determining it is fair, reasonable and adequate.

“This settlement marks the start of a new era at the jail,” said CSJ Associate Professor Jenny-Brooke Condon. “For years, detainees, jail employees, lawyers and judges have complained about the overcrowding and unsafe conditions at the jail. We hope that the agreement results in lasting improvements for our clients.”

Judge Cavanaugh commended the attorneys for both the plaintiffs and defendants. Cavanaugh noted that he has heard many complaints about the conditions at the jail over the years and is satisfied that the settlement will address the problems.

“It is significant that the settlement reduces the overall population of the jail,” Cavanaugh said. “Because of that, all other conditions were brought about and magnified and this will resolve that.”

ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero said there is still much more work to be done.

“The presence of an independent monitor demonstrates that both sides are committed to long-term, systemic change,” said LoCicero. “We are anxious to start this new chapter and implement the changes outlined in this settlement, which we believe is a great outcome for the safety and health of detainees, staff members and the community.”

Under the terms of the agreement, the jail will agree to rectify the conditions that led to the lawsuit, including overcrowding, environmental dangers, fire hazards and inadequate medical care. The agreement was reached with input from correctional experts after jail inspections and an exchange of informal discovery.

As part of the agreement:

  • A corrections professional will serve as an independent monitor to evaluate the jail’s implementation of remedies and provide technical assistance for up to five years.
  • The jail will be prohibited from contracting with other jurisdictions to house inmates.
  • The jail must configure beds (including restrictions on the use of triple bunking) to promote inmate health and safety. These changes, accompanied by efforts to keep the average census below 1,022, will insure sufficient space between bunks and toilets and urinals and maximize available floor space.
  • The jail will complete the planned upgrades to the jail’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and fire prevention infrastructure, which it began during litigation to comply with the New Jersey Uniform Fire Safety Act, and it will ensure plumbing and electrical systems are in working order.
  • The jail will improve the delivery of its medical services and provide timely access to specialty care and chronic disease treatment, in addition to upgrading its medical records systems and obtaining medical accreditation.
  • The jail will screen and treat mental illness among inmates more aggressively, including through programs to place inmates on special watch and to prepare mentally ill prisoners for discharge back into the community.
  • The jail will overhaul its prison management procedures, adding closed-circuit television surveillance to monitor the safety of inmates and staff, modernizing its prison management systems, and rolling out enhanced training and documentation of staff’s use of force.
  • The federal court will retain jurisdiction during the compliance period of the case.

The Passaic County Freeholders approved the agreement in December. The prisoners had an opportunity to consider and comment on the agreement.

In addition to CSJ, a team of attorneys from Dechert LLP, led by Ezra Rosenberg and former partner Chris Michie, serves as the ACLU-NJ’s cooperating attorneys on a pro bono basis.

Since 2007, dozens of law students at Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Social Justice, along with a team of attorneys, have played an important role advocating for the prisoners, including documenting conditions at the jail.

Lawyers who worked on behalf of the class of plaintiffs include: Condon, Patricia Perlmutter, and Rachel Lopez of the Center for Social Justice; Emily Goldberg, formerly of CSJ; Rosenberg, Crotty, and Michael Planell of Dechert; Michie and Jennie Krasner, formerly of Dechert; and LoCicero and Ed Barocas of the ACLU-NJ.

Lawyers and CSJ law students will continue to represent the class of inmates for the duration of the settlement period.

The settlement agreement includes a memorandum of understanding in each of the following areas: correctional management, fire safety, environmental health, medical treatment and mental health care.

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Issue: Prisons

County Agrees to Overhaul Passaic County Jail's Inhumane Conditions

February 23, 2012
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Agreement comes after years of litigation and awaits approval by judge

NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Social Justice (CSJ) today announced the preliminary settlement of a class action lawsuit filed in 2008 on behalf of inmates against Passaic County for unconstitutional and inhumane conditions at the Passaic County Jail.

Under the terms of the agreement, the jail will agree to rectify the conditions that led to the lawsuit, including overcrowding, environmental dangers, fire hazards and inadequate medical care. The agreement was reached with input from correctional experts after jail inspections and an exchange of informal discovery. The agreement will be implemented if a federal judge approves of the plan.

“This settlement will be a huge victory for the inmates of Passaic County Jail, which at one time was notorious for its inhumane and degrading conditions.” said Patricia Perlmutter, a CSJ attorney and former professor. “The county has agreed to provide the resources necessary to meet its constitutional obligations.”

As part of the agreement:

  • A corrections professional will serve as an independent monitor to evaluate the jail’s implementation of remedies and provide technical assistance for up to five years.
  • The jail will be prohibited from contracting with other jurisdictions to house inmates.
  • The jail must configure beds (including restrictions on the use of triple bunking) to promote inmate health and safety. These changes, accompanied by efforts to keep the average census below 1022, will insure sufficient space between bunks and toilets and urinals and maximize available floor space.
  • The jail will complete the planned upgrades to the jail’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and fire prevention infrastructure, which it began during litigation to comply with the New Jersey Uniform Fire Safety Act, and it will ensure plumbing and electrical systems are in working order.
  • The jail will improve the delivery of its medical services and provide timely access to specialty care and chronic disease treatment, in addition to upgrading its medical records systems and obtaining medical accreditation.
  • The jail will screen and treat mental illness among inmates more aggressively, including through programs to place inmates on special watch and to prepare mentally ill prisoners for discharge back into the community.
  • The jail will overhaul its prison management procedures, adding closed-circuit television surveillance to monitor the safety of inmates and staff, modernizing its prison management systems, and rolling out enhanced training and documentation of staff’s use of force.
  • The federal court will retain jurisdiction during the compliance period of the case.

The Passaic County Freeholders approved the agreement in December. The inmates now have the opportunity to consider and comment on the agreement. A federal judge will determine whether the agreement is fair, reasonable and adequate at a hearing currently scheduled for March 27, 2012.

“As we worked on this settlement, the jail administration began making significant improvements and we commend them for their commitment to upgrade the facility. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we are confident that when the comprehensive plan is implemented, it will be a great outcome for the safety and health of detainees, staff members, and the community,” said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director.

In addition to CSJ, a team of attorneys from Dechert LLP, led by Ezra Rosenberg and former partner Chris Michie, serves as the ACLU-NJ’s cooperating attorneys on a pro bono basis.

“Our clients have had to endure serious hazards and deficiencies at an aging facility, but we have already started to see meaningful progress – including a reduction of 40% of the jail population. Reducing that kind of stress on the building and staff now clears the way for environmental safety and management improvements,” said Regan Crotty of Dechert LLP who has worked on the case since it was filed.

“Conditions at Passaic County Jail before the lawsuit were so deplorable as to be called ‘shameful’ by a federal judge and were considered so punitive that U.S. Marshals removed all federal prisoners from the jail. The agreement promises comprehensive changes in the facility and its operations,” said CSJ Associate Professor Jenny-Brooke Condon.

Since 2007, dozens of law students at Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Social Justice, along with a team of attorneys, have played an important role advocating for the inmates, including documenting conditions at the jail.

Lawyers who worked on behalf of the class of plaintiffs include: Condon, Perlmutter, and Rachel Lopez of the Center for Social Justice; Emily Goldberg, formerly of CSJ; Rosenberg, Crotty, and Michael Planell of Dechert; Michie and Jennie Krasner, formerly of Dechert; and LoCicero and Ed Barocas of the ACLU-NJ.

Lawyers and CSJ law students will continue to represent the class of inmates for the duration of the settlement period.

The settlement agreement includes a memorandum of understanding in each of the following areas: correctional management, fire safety, environmental health, medical treatment and mental health care. The documents can be found online at the ACLU-NJ’s website.

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Issue: Prisons

ACLU-NJ Files Brief to the U.S. Supreme Court Challenging Blanket Strip Searches At State Jails

June 27, 2011
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Amicus brief submitted on behalf of former New Jersey Attorneys General

NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ), joined by the national ACLU, today filed a friend-of-the-court brief to the U.S. Supreme Court opposing blanket strip search policies at the Burlington County Jail and Essex County Correctional Facility. The brief was filed on behalf of five former New Jersey attorneys general.

The jails' policies which are being challenged require strip searches for people charged with but not convicted of minor offenses, even when there is no reasonable suspicion that an arrestee possesses contraband. These policies violate New Jersey law and the case before the U.S. Supreme Court contends it violates the Constitution as well.

"A strip search is a demeaning and humiliating experience for anyone," said Ed Barocas, Legal Director for the ACLU-NJ. "But strip searching every detainee is unconstitutional and results in intrusions without justification. Strip searching a person who is in jail for minor offenses, such as unpaid traffic tickets, does not increase security at a jail. It has been proven in this state and other states that removing blanket strip searches does not compromise jail security."

The amicus brief (189k PDF), filed on behalf of former New Jersey Attorneys General Robert J. Del Tufo, Deborah T. Poritz, John J. Farmer Jr., Peter C. Harvey and Zulima V. Farber, defends the privacy and Fourth Amendment rights of Albert Florence. The brief argues that the blanket strip search policies violate New Jersey law, the Attorney General's Strip Search Requirements policy, Department of Corrections' regulations and standards accepted by the American Bar Association, as well as the Constitution.

In March 2005, a State Police officer in Burlington County pulled over Florence's wife for speeding. When the officer ran the vehicle's registration, he learned there was a warrant for his arrest for an unpaid traffic ticket. The warrant, it turned out, had been dismissed in 2003, but Florence was brought to Burlington County Jail anyway and ordered to squat naked and, while standing in front of prison guards, to lift his genitals. Florence spent five days at Burlington County Jail and one day at Essex County Correctional Facility, where he was also strip searched.

Consistent with legal precedent, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez ruled in February 2009 that the strip search of Florence violated the Constitution. The judge held that, for persons arrested on non-indictable offenses, reasonable suspicion that contraband will be found on the person is required before a strip search can occur. Officials with Burlington and Essex counties appealed the decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which acknowledged the intrusiveness of the search, but rejected a reasonable suspicion standard and held that blanket strip search policies are not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The ACLU-NJ's brief to the U.S. Supreme Court argues that using a standard of reasonable suspicion to conduct searches strikes the appropriate balance between maintaining security in the jail and the substantial invasion of privacy caused by strip searches.

"Being forced to strip naked is a humiliating experience, and people charged with minor crimes shouldn't be strip searched unless there's a legitimate reason to think they're hiding something," said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project.

Previous federal rulings have banned strip searches of low-level arrestees unless jail officials can prove reasonable suspicion that the inmate may have drugs, guns or other illegal contraband. The standard of reasonable suspicion still allows prison officials to use broad discretion in determining if a strip search is necessary.

Issue: Prisons

ACLU-NJ Celebrates 50 Years on the Front Lines of Freedom

June 16, 2010
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Newark, N.J. - For five decades, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has been a gale force in the most critical social debates of our time and a vigilant guardian of civil rights for all.

In June, the ACLU-NJ will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding and celebrate its standing as one of the largest and most active affiliates in the nation. Created to counter the growing pressures on civil liberties in the state, the affiliate's first official meeting took place on the night of June 16, 1960. Since its start, the affiliate, which has continued to keep its headquarters in Newark, has seen its membership multiply nearly 10-fold, from 1,600 people to more than 15,000.

"We believe that the liberties in the Bill of Rights belong to every American, to all the people in New Jersey regardless of their political beliefs, race, religion or national origin," ACLU-NJ founder and longtime President Emil Oxfeld said in the original press release announcing the formation of the state's affiliate. "We believe these freedoms must be exercised if democracy in our state is to grow and thrive."

Oxfeld went on to list issues that desperately needed attention at the time - due process, racial discrimination, the separation of church and state, and freedom from censorship - all principles the ACLU still defends daily.

"While some of the issues raised in our cases over the years seem archaic by today's standards, many haven't changed at all," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs, who has led the affiliate since 1999, including during the biggest membership spike in its history. "The law has advanced remarkably in areas like women's rights, lesbian and gay rights, and safeguarding personal privacy, but with issues like free speech, police practices and religious freedom, no fight ever stays won."

"The ACLU of New Jersey has been a leader in the crucial civil liberties battles of our time," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the national ACLU. "While each new era brings a wave of assaults on freedom, the ACLU of New Jersey responds swiftly and decisively, protecting the rights of all Garden State residents. It has proven its value on the American political landscape."

Since opening its doors and springing into action - its first official undertaking was commending the Clifton Library's stance against banning books like Lady Chatterley's Lover - the ACLU-NJ has doggedly worked for justice and equality in New Jersey.

In its first decade the ACLU-NJ took strong action following the 1967 Newark Rebellion. Staffers took to the streets in the aftermath, painstakingly cataloguing police abuses to the ACLU-NJ would refer to in its demands for reform. The New Jersey affiliate also emerged even more progressive than the national ACLU, becoming one of the first state affiliates to take a stand against the Vietnam War.

Since those early years, the ACLU-NJ has grown into one of the country's largest and most active state affiliates, with a record of milestones that has earned it a role on the national stage. Among its accomplishments, the ACLU-NJ:

  • Defended the rights of women in schools, from a tennis star (represented by Ruth Bader Ginsburg) who won the right to play on the high school boys' tennis team, to the Princeton student who turned its Ivy League all-male eating clubs co-ed.
  • Blocked a bill requiring a "one-minute period of silence" for prayer in public schools in 1983.
  • Defended 12 motorists who had been racially profiled on the New Jersey Turnpike in the late 1990s.
  • Propelled New Jersey to become the first state in the nation to grant equal standing to gay and lesbian couples jointly adopting in 1997.
  • Successfully challenged the state's ban on late-term abortion in 1998 and a law requiring parents to sign off on a minor's abortion in 2000.
  • Challenged secret detentions and organized locally, fending off attempts to chip away at individual rights following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
  • Defeated local laws written to exclude immigrants from housing, won humane working conditions for immigrants, and helped enforce the rights of young immigrants to attend public school.
  • Established stronger First Amendment protections in schools and malls, as well as developments run by homeowners associations.

The ACLU-NJ is celebrating the clients, attorneys, leaders and volunteers - many involved in the cases highlighted above - who have built its legacy, from its founders to its future. The stories of these 50 Faces of Liberty can be found at the ACLU-NJ website, http://www.aclu-nj.org

"Society has changed dramatically since our founding, but we've never lost the fire that fuels the ACLU's advocacy," Jacobs added. "We can't always predict what challenges lie ahead for liberty in a changing world, but whatever they are, the ACLU stands ready to defend the fundamental rights of ordinary Americans."

The year-long commemoration will culminate November 4 at the NJ Freedom Fest: A night of laughter and liberties, hosted by comedian Jimmy Tingle and featuring faces from the ACLU past and present, to be held at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick.

5 Former AGs Challenge Jails' Blanket Strip Searches

January 18, 2010
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NEWARK, NJ - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) today filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of five former New Jersey Attorneys General opposing the blanket strip search policies of the Burlington County Jail and Essex County Correctional Facility. The jails' policies currently require strip searches for people charged with but not convicted of minor offenses, and even when there is no reasonable suspicion that an arrestee possesses contraband.

"Strip searching every detainee is unconstitutional, it contributes little to jail security and it creates an intolerable risk of subjecting detainees to needless humiliation," said Ed Barocas, Legal Director for the ACLU-NJ. "There is no legitimate reason for these types of policies to exist."

The amicus brief , filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on behalf of former New Jersey Attorneys General Robert J. Del Tufo, Deborah T. Poritz, John J. Farmer Jr., Peter C. Harvey and Zulima V. Farber, defends the privacy and Fourth Amendment rights of Albert Florence.

Florence filed a lawsuit in 2005 charging officials at the two jails with unconstitutionally subjecting him to two strip searches despite a lack of reasonable suspicion. The searches followed his erroneous arrest during a 2005 traffic stop for a fine he had already paid. He was ordered during the searches to squat naked and, while standing in front of prison guards, to lift his genitals.

"Being forced to strip naked is humiliating, and people charged with minor crimes shouldn't be strip searched unless there's a reason to think they're hiding something," said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.

Consistent with legal precedent, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez ruled in February 2009 that the strip search of Florence violated the Constitution. However, officials representing both Burlington and Essex Counties appealed the decision, placing the case before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The former Attorneys General's brief notes that Judge Rodriguez's decision prevents strip searches only for non-indictable offenses that do not involve contraband and when there is no reason to suspect contraband. Additionally, his decision does not preclude strip searches following visitation.

Previous federal rulings have also banned strip searches of low-level arrestees unless jail officials can prove reasonable suspicion that the inmate may have drugs, guns or other illegal contraband. The standard of reasonable suspicion still allows prison officials to use broad discretion in determining if a strip search is necessary.

A copy of the amicus brief is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/florence-v-board-chosen-freeholders-county-burlington-et-al-amicus-brief

Additional information about ACLU-NJ is available online at: http://www.aclu-nj.org

Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prison

NJ Overturns Unjust Sentencing Law

December 9, 2009
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Judges will now have discretion in sentencing for non-violent offenses

TRENTON — In a landmark victory for civil rights, the New Jersey Senate today passed a bill (S1866) revising a decades-old policy that had punished people more harshly for committing non-violent drug crimes within several hundred feet of schools, unfairly targeting city dwellers. Once signed into law, individual judges will be able to use their discretion to issue fair sentences appropriate to the crimes committed.

"This legislation is smart on crime, not soft on crime. It marks a major step forward toward achieving justice in New Jersey's criminal justice system," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU-NJ. "New Jersey's judges will now have authority to sentence people based on the severity of the crime, not the location."

This legislation overturns the drug-free school zone law, which mandated lengthy sentences for any drug crime committed near a school. As a result, people in New Jersey's more densely packed areas — for example, cities like Newark, Camden, Jersey City or New Brunswick — have been subject to a stricter standard of justice than those in the suburbs. Over the course of the drug-free school zone policy, 96 percent of those arrested for drug-free school offenses in New Jersey were black or Latino.

The Assembly passed the companion legislation, A2762, last year, and will need to vote on it once again to concur with the Senate version. Gov. Jon Corzine has said he will sign the bill once it reaches his desk.

This legislation promises fairness not only to New Jersey citizens relying on the criminal justice system, but to taxpayers. New Jersey's prisons and jails are dangerously overcrowded and many non-violent offenders are serving sentences much longer than needed. Judges will be able to decide the appropriate punishments, and New Jerseyans will know that everyone, everywhere across the state has a fairer shot at justice.

Changing this law has been a top priority for the ACLU-NJ over the past decade, in a broad coalition with organizations including the Coalition of Community Corrections Providers of New Jersey, Corporation for Supportive Housing, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Hispanic Directors Association, Latino Leadership Alliance, New Jersey Association on Correction, Volunteers of American Delaware Valley and Women Who Never Give Up. In addition, cities like Newark and Camden have passed resolutions supporting S1866.

Pentecostal Minister Can Now Preach in Prison

November 29, 2009
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Pentecostal Minister Can Preach In Prison Following ACLU Lawsuit

TRENTON — Prompted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, state prison officials in New Jersey have agreed to restore the right of a devout Christian prisoner to preach at weekly worship services and teach Bible study classes.

Under the terms of a settlement agreement, Howard Thompson, Jr., an ordained Pentecostal minister, will once again be allowed to preach in prison, a practice banned two years ago without any warning or justification.

"The decision by prison officials in New Jersey to allow Mr. Thompson to resume practicing his faith is a welcome acknowledgement that religious freedom in this country extends to all," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The ban on prisoner preaching was clearly at odds with the law and the American value of religious liberty, and this decision was long overdue."

Thompson had preached at weekly worship services at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) for more than a decade when, in 2007, prison officials issued a blanket ban on such preaching by inmates, even when done under the direct supervision of prison staff. In response, the ACLU and the ACLU of New Jersey filed a lawsuit on Thompson's behalf last December, arguing that the ban unconstitutionally infringed upon Thompson's right to freely practice his religion. The lawsuit named NJSP Administrator Michelle R. Ricci and New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner George W. Hayman as defendants.

Since entering NJSP in 1986, Thompson has been an active member of the prison's Christian community, preaching at Sunday services, teaching Bible study classes and founding the choir. His preaching never caused any security problems. Indeed, the prison's chaplaincy staff had actively supported and encouraged Thompson, believing that he was a positive influence on his fellow inmates.

"The ban prevented me from responding to my religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, something I had done honestly, effectively and without any incident for years," said Thompson. "All I have ever wanted was to have my religious rights restored so that I could continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."

Ordained in October 2000 during a service at NJSP overseen by the prison's chaplain, Thompson sincerely believes it is his religious calling and obligation to preach his Pentecostal faith and has always been willing to do so under the full supervision of NJSP staff.

"The right to freely express religious viewpoints without the fear of repercussions is one of Americans' most fundamental constitutional rights," said Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "It is gratifying to see prison officials in our state take that constitutional obligation seriously."

The legal team for Thompson included Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Barocas and Nadia Seeratan of the ACLU of New Jersey.

A copy of the settlement agreement is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/thompson-v-ricci-et-al-settlement-agreement

A copy of the ACLU's complaint on behalf of Thompson is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/37953lgl20081120.html

Additional information about the ACLU of New Jersey is available online at: http://www.aclu-nj.org

The lawsuit was just the latest in a long line of ACLU cases defending the fundamental right to religious exercise, a more expansive list of which is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/defendingreligion

Court Backs Class Action by Passaic County Inmates

June 2, 2009
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NEWARK - A federal district judge late last week allowed inmates to pursue claims as a class, rather than as individuals, in a lawsuit against Passaic County and the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) for unconstitutional conditions at the Passaic County Jail (PCJ). Their new class status acknowledges their common experiences at the facility, and extends the claims of the individual plaintiff inmates to all inmates housed at Passaic County Jail during the suit.

"The law is clear that the system-wide failures at Passaic County Jail warrant class-action status, and we are pleased with the court's decision," said plaintiffs' co-counsel Emily B. Goldberg, visiting assistant clinical professor at the Center for Social Justice (CSJ) at Seton Hall Law School. "The people confined at Passaic County Jail all experience the same deplorable conditions - extreme heat in the summer, extreme cold in the winter, inadequate ventilation and overcrowding, just to name a few."

The Decision, Issued Thursday, allows the lawsuit to move forward with a class that includes people currently incarcerated at PCJ or who will be housed there during the lawsuit, a group of men and women that could number into the thousands. Plaintiffs had sought class-action status for their claims that PCJ is a dangerous and unsanitary facility that risks the health and well-being of inmates, corrections officers and community members who visit the jail. Local fire officials, for example, have testified that the jail's lack of emergency detection alarms and fire-fighting systems have reached "crisis proportions." The court appropriately recognized that class action status allows the ACLU-NJ and CSJ to respond to "common harms likely to affect the entire inmate population."

The court also rejected the DOC's arguments that DOC Commissioner George Hayman was not responsible for the conditions at PCJ. Hayman, as the overseer of operations and management of all prisons and county jails in the state, was responsible for inspections of PCJ and allowing it to operate despite being in violation of state regulations regarding health and safety, implicating him in the claims.

"The commissioner has a legal responsibility to ensure that conditions in jails are humane and sanitary, and this decision confirms that the scope of his authority includes the unacceptable and unlawful conditions at Passaic County Jail," said Christopher Michie, of the law firm Dechert LLP, the cooperating attorney handling the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ.

This lawsuit is one of several challenges in the Past Four Decades against Passaic County Jail, which has become infamous in the state. Since the first lawsuit was filed more than 30 years ago, conditions have not improved. Last year, all federal detainees were removed from the jail after a federal judge found the conditions to be so horrendous that they were punitive.

Issue: Prisons

ACLU Protects Prisoner's Religious Liberty

December 9, 2008
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State Prison Officials Prevent Ordained Pentecostal Minister from Preaching

TRENTON, NJ - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Jersey today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a New Jersey prisoner, an ordained Pentecostal minister, who is asking the state to respect his religious freedom by restoring his right to preach.

Howard Thompson Jr. had preached at weekly worship services at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) for more than a decade when prison officials last year issued, without any reason, a blanket ban on all preaching by inmates, even when done under the direct supervision of prison staff.

"Ours is a country where people are free to express their religious viewpoints without having to fear repercussions," said Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "The New Jersey State Prison may not deny its prisoners their most basic constitutional rights."

Since he entered NJSP in 1986, Thompson has been an active member of the prison's Christian community, participating in and preaching at Sunday services and other religious events, teaching Bible study classes and founding the choir. His preaching has never caused any security incidents, and the prison's chaplaincy staff has actively supported Thompson and encouraged him to spread his deeply held message of faith.

But in June 2007, prison officials banned all prisoners from engaging in preaching of any kind, without any warning or justification -- which they still have not given.

"I have a religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, and I've done so honestly, effectively and without incident for years," Thompson said. "All I want is to have my religious liberty restored and to be able to continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."

According to the lawsuit, which names NJSP Administrator Michelle R. Ricci and New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner George W. Hayman as defendants, Thompson first preached a service at NJSP over a decade ago, when he relieved the former Protestant chaplain, who had been unable to lead a scheduled service due to illness.

During the next decade, before he was ordained as a Pentecostal minister, Thompson periodically preached at Sunday services, taught Bible study classes and participated in and led the prison choir he founded. During these years, Thompson received his call to ordained ministry and to preaching and leading others in worship, study, and prayer.

"Prisoners do not forfeit their fundamental right to religious liberty at the prison gate," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The prison's absolute ban on inmate preaching clearly violates the law and Mr. Thompson's right to practice his faith."

Thompson, ordained in October 2000 during a service at NJSP overseen by the prison's chaplain, sincerely believes it is his religious calling and obligation to preach his Pentecostal faith and is willing to do so under the full supervision of NJSP staff.

This lawsuit is the latest in a long line of ACLU cases defending the fundamental right to religious exercise, a complete list of which is available online.

In 2007, the ACLU of Rhode Island prevailed in a lawsuit challenging a similar restriction on prisoner preaching, successfully overturning a statewide ban and restoring the plaintiff prisoner's right to preach during weekly Christian services.

Read Howard Thompson's complaint and preliminary injunction brief online.

Learn about the ACLU Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief and the ACLU-NJ online.