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N.J. May Be Liable for Inmate Abuse Claims

(CN) - New Jersey officials must face claims that prison guards gave an inmate a painful body cavity search and denied her water, clothing and sanitary napkins, the Third Circuit ruled.

Alexandra Chavarriaga says that, on three occasions in 2010 and 2011, personnel held her at the New Jersey State Prison, or NJSP, Psychiatric Unit while unlawfully transferring her from the Garrett House, a residential community release program, to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility.

Prison staff first removed Chavarriaga from Garrett on April 7, 2010, for allegedly breaking rules twice, and held her naked overnight in a psych unit cell, she claims.

She says personnel unlawfully transferred her from Garrett to state prison a second time on May 31, 2011, in retaliation for a lawsuit she filed, in which she claimed detectives in the Somerset County prosecutor's office used excessive force in arresting her.

Sgt. Janice Brown allegedly "ordered all of [Chavarriaga's] clothing removed" and sent her to a psych unit cell where male staff and inmates could see her naked at times for the next three days.

There, a Jane Doe prison guard made a painful and unjustified manual body cavity search of Chavarriaga's rectum and vagina, according to a class action lawsuit Chavarriaga filed in 2012 against the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the state's then-Attorney General Jeffery Chiesa, Commissioner of Corrections Gary Lanigan and Brown.

When Chavarriaga asked for drinking water, as the plumbing in her cell was not working, the correctional officers told her to drink from the toilet bowl, she claims.

Though the psych unit had a shower, Chavarriaga was forced to "walk down a spiral staircase to another unit and then down a hallway, naked and shackled, in plain view of male prisoners and staff," to reach it - and only on her last day in custody, her lawsuit states.

Officers also denied Chavarriaga sanitary napkins and medications for menstrual cramps and migraine headaches, according to the complaint.

Chavarriaga was sent from Garrett back to the state prison psych unit a third time for the night of Dec. 22, 2011, when she was again deprived of potable water, the complaint states.

She remained in custody until she completed her sentence on March 25, 2013. Her lawsuit alleges violations of due process and equal protection, cruel and unusual punishment under federal and state law.

U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp granted Chiesa, Lanigan, and Brown summary judgment in March 2014, after the case was removed to federal court.

Chavarriaga appealed, and the Third Circuit partially reversed the lower court's ruling Monday, finding that she "hit the 'perverse jackpot' of being assigned to the same cell without potable water on all three occasions that she was confined in the NJSP."

Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Morton Greenberg later added that "the cavity search was plainly not a routine security measure because the prison personnel made such a search only during appellant's second confinement in the NJSP and, so far as we are aware, not because appellant committed a disciplinary infraction or in some way led the prison personnel to believe that she was concealing contraband in her body."

Chavarriaga's alleged mistreatment may support a retaliation claim, the Philadelphia-based appeals court ruled.

"We believe that it reasonably could be inferred that prison personnel targeted her intentionally without a legitimate penological basis," Greenberg wrote. "The district court erred in concluding otherwise and thus, on remand, appellant should be able to proceed on her body cavity search, denial of potable water, being forced to walk to the shower or otherwise exposed while naked in the presence of male prison personnel and inmates, and denial of sanitary napkins and medications claims on an equal protection as well as an Eighth Amendment basis."

Leland Moore, a spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General, declined to comment on the ruling.

Chavarriaga's attorney did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.

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