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.