By: Eva Zelson
On: May 29, 2020
Rights of Prisoners
One important yet often overlooked civil rights issue is the treatment of prisoners. Prisoners have, of course, generally been convicted of crimes, but they are still people and still have the right to be treated humanely. Although this right is guaranteed by law, there are sadly multiple prisons where prisoners are brutally mistreated. One common form of mistreatment is the sexual abuse of prisoners.
Sexual Abuse Should not be a Part of a Prisoner’s Punishment
A recent report from the United States Department of Justice has found that inmates at New Jersey’s only state prison for women were, for years, repeatedly sexually assaulted and abused by prison guards. The sexual abuse was so widespread that one guard was reportedly accused by sixteen separate inmates of sexual assault or physical abuse. In one case, according to the report, guards held a “viewing party” of a mentally ill inmate who was on suicide watch, coercing her to dance naked for them.
The prison, the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, NJ, violated the constitutional rights of inmates, according to the report. As explained by Eric S. Dreiband, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, “sexual abuse should not be a part of any prisoner’s punishment”.
The report further found that the widespread sexual abuse of prisoners has been a decades-long “open secret”, according to multiple inmates.
A Pattern of Sexual Abuse Exposed
Over fifteen years ago, civil rights attorney Gregg L. Zeff attempted to expose and correct this “open secret” through a lawsuit on behalf of two Mahan inmates who had been sexually assaulted multiple times in the late 1990s. Although the Court believed that the inmates had been assaulted—the guard responsible had, in fact, been fired and criminally prosecuted—it ultimately concluded in its 2005 decision that the prison itself had not violated the constitutional rights of the inmates. Judge Fuentes dissented from the ruling, arguing that the case against the prison should go forward. Judge Fuentes reasoned, in part, that “a reasonable jury could conclude that a failure to institute any gender sensitivity or privacy training – even after newly introducing male guards into a female prison, despite a series of sexual assaults by guards on prisoners… was reckless.”
For decades, Gregg L. Zeff and Zeff Law Firm have been on the forefront of protecting the rights of people by exposing the reckless conduct of prisons like Edna Mahan. This important work—and the similar work done by countless other civil rights attorneys and organizations—has helped to ensure that sexual abusers, and the places that employ them, are brought to justice. Even though the 2005 decision did not represent a “win” against the prison, it represented an important part of the takedown that ultimately led to the recent Justice Department report. Zeff Law Firm looks forward to continuing this important and essential work for years to come, in the hopes that eventually, no more prisoners will be forced to endure sexual abuse.
Read the NJ.com opinion piece written by attorney Gregg Zeff’s NJ state NAACP colleague, Richard Robinson here.