A New Jersey transgender woman who’s been incarcerated in men’s prisons for the past 17 months will be transferred to New Jersey women’s prison later this month, it was announced last week.
The decision comes in response to a lawsuit recently filed against the state’s Department of Corrections by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
On Aug. 28, representatives of the DOC sent an email to Mercer County Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Hurd informing him that plaintiff “Sonia Doe” will be transferred to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J. by the week of Sept. 15.
“I think we can safely say that within the next several weeks our client will be at the women’s prison,” said Tess Borden, an attorney for Doe, on Aug. 29.
A New Jersey DOC spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
Doe began serving a prison sentence back in March 2018 for offenses stemming from addiction. Since then, she’s been housed in four different men’s prisons and experienced mistreatment in each one, according to court records.
Doe has been verbally abused and beaten by prison staff, called a “f-----g fa---t” by a cellmate, denied female undergarments, denied access to hormone therapy in a timely manner, and placed in solitary confinement for lengthy periods of time, according to court records.
Borden stressed the need for DOC to respect the gender identity of its inmates.
“Sonia Doe is a woman,” Borden said. “For the past 17 months, she’s been subject to daily discrimination. The harm she’s experienced has been extraordinary. It’s included being physically assaulted by correctional staff in retaliation for asserting her rights as a woman, being subjected to daily discrimination and being verbally and sexually harassed by prison staff as well as male prisoners who have made lewd and sexually explicit comments to her and have even masturbated while staring at her.”
Borden said prison staff assaulted Doe in May and blamed Doe for the assault. “On May 24, she was assaulted by three correctional staff and she was blamed for that assault and sanctioned for it. As a result, she spent 67 days in solitary confinement. She corrected the officers’ misgendering of her, and she complained of being groped under the guise of a pat-down search and said she would be filing a grievance about it. In retaliation for that, she was beaten and subjected to disciplinary charges. She was actually assaulted but she was charged with the assault. The assault is horrific and evidence of why it’s so dangerous to house trans women in men’s prison. But since March 2018, she has been daily discriminated against and daily at-risk for physical and sexual violence. She has been daily told ‘you are not a woman, you’re a man.’”
Borden said Doe’s impending transfer to a women’s prison doesn’t end the litigation.
“The transfer is an important first step. But the litigation is continuing, to vindicate Ms. Doe’s rights. And we hope to change the policies and practices of the New Jersey Department of Corrections for all trans prisoners. Our understanding is that most trans people are not housed in accordance with their gender identity. We know people are improperly housed in other DOC facilities and, potentially, in county jails. Our understanding is that only two trans women are at Edna Mahan and both of them have undergone [gender affirming surgery]. It has been DOC’s practice not to transfer trans women to the women’s facility if they have not had [gender affirming surgery]. Of course, that practice is discriminatory, it’s dangerous and it fails to respect people’s gender identity. And so we’re glad that the DOC has taken this important step in Ms. Doe’s case.”
Doe, 40, has worked as an EMT, a suicide prevention counselor and a bail agent. In an affidavit, Doe gave a firsthand account of her alleged mistreatment.
“In each of the four men’s prisons I have been confined at, I have consistently been misgendered, otherwise harassed, and made to feel at risk of physical and sexual assault,” Doe stated, in the filing. “Like each of the more than 500 days I have now spent in men’s prisons, today I feel vulnerable to attack, uncomfortable, and unsafe. The daily reminders that the NJ DOC considers and treats me like a man exacerbate my gender dysphoria and cause me fear, anxiety, depression, humiliation, self-loathing and, at times, even feelings of self-harm.”
ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha expressed agreement with the decision to transfer Doe. “Our state takes great pride, as it should, in being a leader in protecting civil rights and promoting inclusion and non-discrimination in our communities and institutions,” Sinha said. “Now is the time to uphold that leadership role — and the law’s promise of equal protection — by ensuring respect for prisoners’ gender identity. The DOC’s decision to transfer Sonia Doe is an important step in getting there.”
ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero echoed those sentiments.
“Sonia Doe has been subjected to unconscionable conditions in men’s prisons,” LoCicero said. “By committing to transfer her, the DOC has begun to address these harms. While the case continues, we are hopeful that the DOC will act quickly to draft and implement policies that meaningfully protect Ms. Doe’s rights and the rights of other transgender people in prison.”
Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, said he was pleased with the decision to transfer Doe.
“We are glad she will be housed in the proper facility,” Fuscarino said. “The New Jersey Department of Corrections’ decision to finally move Sonia Doe to the proper facility is welcomed. But the harm against her has already been done. New Jersey’s criminal justice system needs significant reforms to protect transgender people, including a clear policy that guarantees individuals will be housed in accordance with their gender identity. So we fully support our partners at the ACLU of New Jersey — to secure justice for this woman and for all transgender individuals in the criminal justice system.”
At least 21 percent of transgender women confined in men’s facilities reported suffering physical abuse while in prison, while 20 percent reported sexual violence, according to a national survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.