Youth with Disabilities in Adult Prisons Entitled to Special Education, Law Suit Contends

Newark, NJ – Adult prisons in New Jersey routinely violate the rights of high school students with disabilities by denying them education, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today. Some students in these prisons receive no education whatsoever, while for others, education consists of receiving worksheets while they sit in a cage in the center of a solitary confinement unit.

In the wake of Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a bill that would have restricted the use of solitary confinement for vulnerable populations, attorneys from Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and Proskauer Rose LLP are suing the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) and the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) for failing to provide education throughout the prison system, including to students held in solitary confinement.

“Whether in a cage or a classroom, NJDOC has failed and continues to fail youth with disabilities, utterly ignoring a key component of rehabilitation: a meaningful education,” said Mary-Lee Smith, Director of Litigation at Disability Rights Advocates. “Youth with disabilities do not check their civil rights at the door of adult prison facilities.”

Experts estimate that as many as 70% of young people in adult prisons require special education services, and federal and state laws are clear: students with disabilities incarcerated in adult prisons are entitled to special education through the age of 21. About 800 young people in NJDOC custody are currently 21 and under, but NJDOC ignores its obligation to provide special education services to those who are eligible.

“It is shocking that a state prison system would ignore the needs of students with disabilities, a group that is disproportionately represented in the prison system and could benefit so dramatically from the services the law entitles them to,” said Jeanne LoCicero, Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “We estimate that hundreds of incarcerated students are being denied their right to an education.”

“This lawsuit seeks to vindicate the rights of an incredibly vulnerable population: youth with disabilities in adult prison facilities,” said Bill Silverman, a former federal prosecutor and the partner at Proskauer responsible for leading pro bono efforts. “We intend to enforce the law.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and three incarcerated students, referred to in the lawsuit as Adam X., Brian Y. and Casey Z., who have been denied special education services by NJDOC:

  • Adam X. has spent over 150 days in solitary confinement receiving virtually no education services, let alone special education. He entered NJDOC custody at age 18 and has a diagnosis of ADHD, but NJDOC has never investigated whether solitary confinement exacerbates his ADHD or whether his behavior resulted from his disability.
  • Brian Y. has spent 180 days in solitary confinement – at first he received no education services, but eventually NJDOC gave him worksheets to complete while in a cage in the middle of the unit. He entered NJDOC custody before he turned 18 and has been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, impulse control disorder, and ADHD, but NJDOC has never tested him for special education, despite being legally obligated to do so. Now at the age of 19, Brian Y. has missed out on years of special education services while locked in adult correctional facilities. As with Adam X., NJDOC has never investigated whether administrative segregation worsens Brian’s disabilities or whether his prior behavior resulted from his disabilities.
  • Casey Z. has been in special education for most of his life but has received no special education services at all since entering NJDOC custody 17 months ago at age 19. NJDOC officials tried to excuse this failure by claming Casey’s sentence is “too long” for him to receive special education services, but federal law makes no such exceptions.

“There is no system in place at New Jersey’s adult correctional facilities to provide students with disabilities the services they need,” said Rebecca Livengood, ACLU-NJ Skadden Fellow. “Youth with disabilities in adult prison facilities can no longer be overlooked; this lawsuit will ensure that.”

The lawsuit also charges that the NJDOE has failed to monitor and ensure that the NJDOC was providing special education and related services in compliance with federal and state law.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.

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