A federal jury last week found that Berks County violated the constitutional rights of women assigned trusty status incarcerated at the Berks County Prison by denying them the same access to furloughs as men who hold the same status.
The case centered around a lawsuit filed by former inmates Theresa Victory and Alice Velazquez-Diaz, alleging that women assigned trusty status are treated differently than men who hold the same status and are housed at the Berks County Reentry Center.
The action aimed to provide female trusty inmates at the prison the same freedoms and opportunities given to their male counterparts.
At the conclusion of a weeklong trial in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, a jury of eight found that the two women were subjected to discrimination claims under the 14th Amendment.
In addition, the jury awarded $2,800 in compensatory damages to Victory, who has since married and changed her name to Theresa Bohning, finding that the discriminatory treatment caused her harm.
Attorney Su Ming Yeh of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, which represented the women, applauded the outcome of the trial.
"We are pleased that the jury recognized that Berks County was refusing to provide equal opportunities to incarcerated women in connecting with their families and preparing for reentry back into society," Yeh said in a press release.
Bohning sued the county in December 2018, claiming that men on work release status are granted significantly greater freedom, privileges and opportunities.
In the lawsuit, she alleged that men have access to services that help them find work, spend less time confined to their cells, have unfettered access to laundry services and are entitled to take furloughs after they have been there for one month.
She also pointed out that men and women on work release are charged $50 a week for room and board despite the extra benefits and privileges the men are afforded by being housed in the reentry center.
Bohning argued that by denying otherwise eligible female prisoners access to housing and services provided to male prisoners in the reentry center, the defendants were discriminating on the basis of gender in violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantees to equal protection and due process.
The county had argued that female inmates were excluded from the reentry center because of staffing, security and cost concerns.
County solicitor Christine M. Sadler said the county is still reviewing the ruling and has not yet decided if it will file an appeal. She also pointed out that there are some outstanding issues related to the case that will need to be ruled on.
While U.S. District Judge Mark A. Kearney had already ruled the county had violated the rights of the trusty status women by denying them the freedom of movement, access to showers and privileges and visitation conditions provided to men with the same status, it was up to the jury to determine whether the differences in access to furloughs amounted to unconstitutional discrimination.
In Berks, inmates of the lowest security classification are granted additional privileges, including the ability to leave the premises for specific hours during the day and then return to jail. The plaintiffs argued the opportunity allows people to spend time reconnecting with their family support system, get IDs to prepare for release and complete other logistics that will help them successfully resume life within the community.
"Our clients simply wanted the same access to furloughs as the men — to see their children, care for their loved ones and prepare for their return home," attorney Matthew A. Feldman of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project said in a press release.
Reentry center closed
Feldman said the nonprofit organization was honored to represent Bohning and Velazquez-Diaz, who pursued the case on behalf of all trusty women, because they believed incarcerated women deserve the same freedoms and privileges afforded to their male counterparts.
He added that the organization is also concerned about the potential for future inequities based on the recent decision by county officials to shut down the reentry center.
Days before the trial was set to begin, county officials revealed in a notice to the court that the reentry center was no longer housing inmates. It stated that all inmates — male and female — are incarcerated at the prison.
Sadler said at the time the county commissioners' decision to shut down the reentry center had been a topic of discussion long before the lawsuit was filed. She said the facility, which was opened in 2010, was a source of concern because it was considered inefficient and oversized. She said the decision was made largely due to financial factors.
While the filing had no impact on the lawsuit, it may settle the dispute over what the county should do to ensure that future female inmates are given access to the same services and programs available to men.
Additional remedies, if any, will be reviewed by Kearney.