NJDOC takes important first step of transferring Sonia Doe to New Jersey's women’s prison while her lawsuit continues

A woman who is transgender and has been improperly confined in men’s prisons for over 17 months will be transferred to New Jersey’s women’s prison. The decision, made by the New Jersey Department of Corrections, comes two weeks after the ACLU of New Jersey and attorney Robyn Gigl of Gluck Walrath LLP filed a lawsuit (PDF) on the woman’s behalf against the agency.

The transfer represents an important first step in the course of litigation challenging the discriminatory treatment of transgender prisoners. In response to a motion for emergency relief by plaintiff Sonia Doe (a pseudonym), the DOC told the court yesterday that Ms. Doe would be transferred to the women’s prison no later than the week of September 15, 2019.

Litigation to vindicate Ms. Doe’s rights continues. The lawsuit, filed in Mercer County, includes ten counts for violations of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination and State Constitution.

“Sonia Doe has been subjected to unconscionable conditions in men’s prisons. By committing to transfer her, the DOC has begun to address these harms,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “While the case continues, we are hopeful that the DOC will act quickly to draft and implement policies that meaningfully protect Ms. Doe’s rights and the rights of other transgender people in prison.”
Since Sonia Doe entered prison in March 2018, she has been confined in four different men’s facilities, despite the DOC’s knowledge that she is a woman. DOC staff have forced Ms. Doe to live as a man and discriminated against her because she is transgender.

“Sonia Doe has spent more than 500 days in men’s prisons, facing extreme harassment, discrimination and outright violence on a day-to-day basis,” said ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Tess Borden. “Her bravery in asserting her rights, and the DOC’s quick decision to transfer her to the women’s prison, creates momentum for broad-based reforms.”
Ms. Doe is not the only person who is not housed by DOC in accordance with their gender identity. People who are transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming face extraordinary risk of emotional and physical harm in prison. In a national survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 21 percent of transgender women confined in men’s facilities reported suffering physical abuse while in prison, and 20 percent reported sexual violence.

“Our state takes great pride, as it should, in being a leader in protecting civil rights and promoting inclusion and non-discrimination in our communities and institutions,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “Now is the time to uphold that leadership role – and the law’s promise of equal protection – by ensuring respect for prisoners’ gender identity. The DOC’s decision to transfer Sonia Doe is an important step in getting there.”

PDFs of the initial case documents: