N.J. to move transgender woman out of men’s prison after lawsuit

New Jersey prison officials will move a transgender woman to the state's only female prison after winning a lawsuit against them. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey prison officials will move a transgender woman to the state's only female prison after winning a lawsuit against them. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey prison officials have agreed to transfer a transgender woman from a men’s prison to the state’s only all-female correctional facility, her attorneys said Thursday.

The woman, called by the pseudonym Sonia Doe, alleged in a lawsuit that she was harassed and assaulted for being transgender during the 17 months she spent in four different men’s prisons across the state.

“She’s been subjected to extreme harassment, violence, and discrimination on a daily basis,” said Jeanne LoCicero, legal director for the ACLU of New Jersey and one of Doe’s attorneys.

LoCicero said the case is another reason why New Jersey needs to overhaul its policies around transgender prisoners, who are nearly ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted behind bars than the general population, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“We’re asking the New Jersey Department of Corrections to make broad-based policy changes so that our client and other transgender people who are incarcerated are not subject to discrimination, harassment, or other inappropriate treatment in prison.”

NJDOC spokesman Matthew Schuman said the department would not comment due to the pending litigation.

According to her lawsuit, Doe went to prison for offenses related to her addiction to prescription painkillers, which she said she developed after several surgeries stemming from auto accidents and other injuries.

She was confined to a prison for men, even though Doe told prison staff she was transgender and her New Jersey driver’s license listed her as female.

Once behind bars, the lawsuit alleges, Doe faced a barrage of harassment and retaliation from prison staff and other inmates. 

NJDOC staff referred to her using male pronouns and made lewd comments about her body, a doctor halved the testosterone-blocking medication she was taking, and other inmates masturbated while staring at Doe and sent her letters explaining the sex acts they wanted to perform with her, the lawsuit said. Doe also claims she was beaten by NJDOC staff in retaliation for filing a complaint.

The state allows inmates to ask to move to a prison that conforms with their gender identity, but the lawsuit alleges that NJDOC adheres to the policy based only on an inmate’s genitalia.

Doe’s attorneys said the NJDOC eventually agreed to move her to Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, the state’s only female prison.

But advocates for transgender people said that decision was not enough. Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, said the state should be proactive in making sure that no other cases like Doe’s occur.

“The NJDOC’s decision to finally move this transgender woman to the proper facility is welcomed, but unfortunately the harm against her has already been done,” he said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal