For 18 months, Sonia Doe faced humiliating strip searches in front of male guards. Male prisoners exposed themselves to her. She faced sexual harassment, discrimination and physical threats from corrections officers and inmates alike.
Doe, who is transgender, has lived her life publicly as a woman since 2003. Yet, Doe — a pseudonym used for her lawsuit — was transported to four different men's prisons across New Jersey from March 2018 to August 2019.
It took a lawsuit filed that August for Doe to finally be transported to a woman's prison weeks later.
As part of the settlement for that lawsuit Tuesday, the New Jersey Department of Corrections will now make it customary for prisoners who identify as transgender, intersex or nonbinary to be assigned a prison stay in line with their gender identity — not with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Tuesday's news marks a major policy shift for the New Jersey Department of Corrections.
Research has shown that transgender inmates face particular danger while in prison, but few states offer them protections like these. Connecticut and California passed laws in 2018 and 2020, respectively, that require transgender inmates to be assigned prisons based on their gender identity. Rhode Island, New York City and Massachusetts also have housed inmates based on their gender identity.
"When I was forced to live in men's prisons, I was terrified I wouldn't make it out alive. Those memories still haunt me," Doe said in a statement announcing the settlement. "Though I still have nightmares about that time, it's a relief to know that as a result of my experience the NJDOC has adopted substantial policy changes so no person should be subjected to the horrors I survived."
Doe faced harassment, discrimination and abuse
According to court documents reviewed by NPR, Doe was placed in men's prisons in spite of the state's Department of Corrections knowing she was a transgender woman.
Clear documentation, including her driver's license, showed her gender identity, but Doe was still forced to remain in men's prisons. In addition to facing physical assaults and verbal and sexual harassment in prison, she was also forced to remain in solitary confinement for long stretches.
Corrections staff would refer to her as a man and address her using male pronouns, according to her complaint. She also was denied gender-appropriate clothing items and had difficulty receiving her hormone therapy regularly and on time.
The settlement forces agency-wide changes
The new policy will require staff to use appropriate pronouns, and prohibits harassment and discrimination based on gender identity.
As part of the settlement in the Doe case, all New Jersey state corrections officers, regardless of rank or facility, will have to sign an acknowledgement that they have read the policy. The agency also will provide targeted training on the changes.
The Department of Corrections also said it would guarantee gender-affirming undergarments, clothing, and other property for the inmates. Medical and mental health treatment, including gender-affirming care, also will be provided "as medically appropriate."
Inmates who are transgender also will be given the opportunity to shower separately and won't have to go through a strip searches or pat downs by an officer of the opposite sex.
"The settlement of this lawsuit puts in place systemic, far-reaching policy changes to recognize and respect the gender identity of people in prison," said Tess Borden, ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney. ACLU New Jersey represented Doe along with Robyn Gigl of Gluck Walrath LLP.
As part of the settlement, the New Jersey Department of Corrections have agreed to pay Doe $125,000 in damages and $45,000 in separate attorney's fees.
Longstanding issues at New Jersey prisons
Doe was not the only transgender inmate who has faced frightening treatment in New Jersey prisons.
Rae Rollins, a transgender woman, filed a lawsuit in March saying she was one of several inmates attacked by corrections officers earlier this year at the scandal-plagued Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. In January, several women were severely beaten by corrections officers at that facility. Ten correctional police officers have been charged in connection to the alleged beatings of prisoners.
Rollins sought a transfer to a different women's prison after the incident, but was moved to a men's prison instead. Rollins has since been moved to an out-of-state prison, according to the state's records.
Earlier this month, New Jersey's embattled corrections commissioner announced his resignation from his post — a day after Gov. Phil Murphy said the state would close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.