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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