N.J. adopts sweeping new policies on special education in state prisons, following settlement

The interior of a New Jersey prison

A New Jersey prison is pictured in a file photo. (NJ Spotlight)

Students in New Jersey, who were deprived of special education services while incarcerated between 2015 and 2020, are eligible to receive up to $8,000 per year in “compensatory education” benefits, following a class action settlement earlier this month.

A federal New Jersey court gave final approval for a landmark settlement that advocates said will reform special education in state prisons.

According to the ACLU-NJ, the money can be used to pay for “educational, vocational, and reentry services,” for incarcerated and released youth and young adults with disabilities.

The ACLU of New Jersey Foundation, Disability Rights Advocates, and Proskauer Rose LLP represented three students who alleged they were denied special education in prison.

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The lawsuit was brought against the New Jersey Department of Corrections and the Department of Education.

In this case, the students were listed by pseudonyms — Adam X., Brian Y., and Casey Z.

The lawsuit was drawn from their experiences in the state prison system.

According to the ACLU-NJ, Brian Y. had entered the state prison system before his 18th birthday and subsequently realized his rights to special education and related services were being violated.

“In about 2015, we had an attorney who was working on education rights on behalf of people in the juvenile justice system…and we started hearing from them about how broken the special education system was for people in the adult state prison system,” said Jeanne LoCicero, legal director of the ACLU-NJ.”

“When students with educational disabilities have been identified, there are federal laws that protect them and ensure that they have access to meaningful education,” LoCicero said. “And what we found is that that wasn’t happening inside state prisons. There were cases when they didn’t even have any textbooks, or were very outdated.”

The settlement also required the New Jersey Department of Corrections to adopt seven new policies for its special education program and related services.

Notable policy overhauls include requirements to provide at least four hours of instruction per day in a regular classroom setting, to ban the use of worksheets as the primary method of educational instruction, and to develop and implement education plans tailored to the individual needs of each incarcerated student.

“Students weren’t getting the kind of individualized attention and assessment that they were entitled to by the law,” LoCicero said.

The ACLU-NJ said deficiencies in the state prison’s special education program especially impacted people of color in New Jersey, the U.S. state with the highest racial disparities within the prison system.  

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To ensure the Department of Corrections’ compliance with the new policies, the court-appointed the External Monitor to carry out a five-year monitoring term.

The ACLU-NJ said about 400 people may be eligible to file a claim for compensatory special education benefits.

The state also agreed to pay $975,000 in attorneys fees and other expenses related to the lawsuit.

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