State Superior Court Judge Michael O’Neill recently ruled that a lawsuit against the New York Department of Corrections regarding allegations of sexual abuse may proceed.
Inmates at a women’s prison in New Jersey are suing over allegations that the facility was “plagued by rampant sexual abuse and misconduct for years.” A state judge recently ruled that the case can proceed with class-actions status. According to State Superior Court Judge Michael O’Neill, a report released earlier this year by the Department of Justice “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…and lends considerable support to the overriding (predominant) contentions set forth in the complaint…While it is true that the DOJ report itself is not admissible in evidence, that fact does not mandate that this court turn a blind eye to its contents.”
Furthermore, the DOJ report, which was released in April, alleged the state Department of Corrections “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.”
The suit itself was filed by two inmates and names the state Department of Corrections as a defendant. It is currently seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages. Since the suit was filed, a handful of corrections officers at the facility have “pleaded guilty to, or been convicted of, sexual abuse and misconduct.”
Judge O’Neill’s decision came after a different judge denied the class-action bid last year. After that denial, “a state appeals court asked O’Neill to take a new look at the case earlier this year in light of the DOJ report.” Now, both sides will have the opportunity to submit briefs, and then the appeals court will review O’Neill’s ruling, according to attorneys for the inmates.
When commenting on the judge’s decision, 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.”
Prior to the ruling, attorneys representing the state corrections department argued that “class certification should be denied because not all inmates can establish firsthand knowledge of sexual misconduct and discrimination.”
The alleged harassment and sexual abuse took place at the Mahan facility in Hunterdon County, about 50 miles west of New York City. The facility got a lot of attention back in the 1970s when Assata Shakur escaped and fled to Cuba. Shakur was “convicted of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop in 1973.”