Mercer County Courthouse / Photo by Carmen Natale

Ruling on an issue of first impression, a New Jersey Superior Court judge has allowed claims lodged under the state Law Against Discrimination to move forward in a putative class suit alleging sexual abuse of inmates at New Jersey’s only prison for women.

Judge Kay Walcott-Henderson in Mercer County ruled on July 6 that prisons are a public accommodation and thus are governed by the LAD.

In granting the unopposed motion, the judge became the first in New Jersey to explicitly hold that the LAD applies to prisoners, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs and the proposed class.

The text of the LAD enumerates locations that fall under the definition of a public accommodation, including theaters, skating rinks, airports and ice cream parlors, but prisons aren’t on the list.

The plaintiffs’ court papers cited cases holding hospitals, libraries and police stations to be public accommodations, and argued that the fact that prison inmates are not behind bars voluntarily is not relevant to the question of the LAD’s applicability.

The ruling is an early victory for the plaintiffs, who seek to demonstrate that the environment at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women is discriminatory on the basis of sex, and that sexual harassment and discrimination at the facility are so severe and pervasive that it constitutes a hostile environment in violation of the LAD.

“For decades, there has been an environment of rampant and unchecked sexual assault and harassment of female inmates by prison employees,” said plaintiffs lawyer Stefanie Colella-Walsh of Stark & Stark in a statement. “We are prepared to be at the forefront of protecting women at risk in sexually abusive environments.”

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, Lee Moore, declined to comment on the ruling.

The Department of Corrections did not immediately provide comment on the suit’s allegations.

The suit, Brown v. State of New Jersey Department of Corrections, was filed in March by Colella-Walsh and Martin Schrama from Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville, and Oliver Barry and Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gillin-Schwartz in Wildwood.

The suit seeks a declaration that the DOC created a hostile environment at the facility, in violation of the LAD; an injunction against such violations; compensatory and punitive damages; and legal fees.

The suit’s named plaintiffs are Judith Vazquez and Marianne Brown. According to court papers, Vazquez, who is serving a 30-year sentence on a murder conviction, has been behind bars for 22 years. In the late 1990s she sought redress in the civil court system, claiming assaults by two officers but no action was taken against them, the suit alleges. Brown, who has been in jail for 17 years, is serving a 25-year sentence for kidnapping, according to the papers. The suit claims Brown herself hasn’t been victimized, but has witnessed severe and pervasive abuse of other inmates by officers and other inmates.

The suit alleges numerous incidents in which corrections officers had inappropriate sexual relations with inmates, or sexually assaulted inmates, or traded money or contraband for sexual favors. The plaintiffs contend that an atmosphere of fear and intimidation at the facility is exacerbated because any complaints about such conduct must be reported to the inmates’ abusers: the corrections officers who control and supervise every facet of inmates’ lives.

In the past two years, seven DOC employees at the Mahan correctional facility have been charged with sexual abuse of women, the plaintiffs attorneys said in a statement.