Inmates at a New Jersey women’s prison that a federal report said was plagued by rampant sexual abuse and misconduct for years can proceed with a class-action lawsuit, a state judge has ruled.
State Superior Court Judge Michael O’Neill’s opinion, written last month and ordered unsealed last week, acknowledged that a Department of Justice report released in the spring buttressed the inmates’ claims that they were forced to live in a hostile environment, regardless of whether they experienced abuse firsthand.
"The DOJ Report sheds new light on, and requires a fresh look at, the hostile living environment claims set forth in the complaint," O’Neill wrote, and lends "considerable support to the overriding (predominant) contentions set forth in the complaint."
The suit filed by two longtime inmates names the state Department of Corrections and seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.
The DOJ report released in April alleged the state corrections department violated inmates’ constitutional rights by failing to protect them from a culture of "severe and prevalent abuse" and that officials failed to take action despite being aware of systemic problems.
Several corrections officers at the prison have pleaded guilty to, or been convicted of, sexual abuse and misconduct in recent years.
A different state judge denied the inmates’ class-action bid last year, but a state appeals court asked O’Neill to take a new look at the case this spring in light of the DOJ report. The appeals court will now review O’Neill’s ruling once both sides have filed briefs, attorneys for the inmates said Tuesday.
In a statement, the attorneys for the Stark & Stark and Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gillian-Schwartz firms said the ruling “represents an important step towards addressing the problems at the prison that permitted predatory corrections officers to operate unchecked for years.”
A message was left Tuesday with attorneys representing the state corrections department. They have argued that class certification should be denied because not all inmates can establish firsthand knowledge of sexual misconduct and discrimination.
The Mahan facility, which is in Hunterdon County about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of New York City, gained notoriety in the late 1970s when Assata Shakur, who was convicted of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop in 1973, escaped and eventually fled to Cuba, where she was granted asylum by Fidel Castro.