Cumberland County confidentially paid out $150,000 to settle inmate’s claim that jail guards forced her “into numerous non-consensual sexual acts.”

On October 27, 2020, the Cumberland County Board of County Commissioners resolved to settle a 2017 lawsuit filed by a female Cumberland County Jail inmate who claimed that several corrections officers forced her to perform oral sex and to have sexual intercourse with them on “a nearly daily basis” and subjected her to other forms of sexual harassment.

In her lawsuit, Jennifer Cantoni, who was 41 when the suit was filed, claimed that she had “been fighting addiction for the last twenty years” and had “spent a substantial amount of her adult life in and out of the Cumberland County Jail.”

After the September 8, 2015 birth of her daughter in the jail’s medical wing, Cantoni said that she was given a favored “trustee” job at the jail that entailed cleaning the warden’s office, visiting area and admissions area. While this position got her out of the general jail population, it “unfortunately . . . meant she was left alone with guards who repeatedly sexually abused her.”

Cantoni named four corrections officers as defendants in her lawsuit: Officers John Berry, Tyrone Ellis, Will Bailey and Lieutenant Brad Pierce.

She claimed that Berry would, nearly every day, coerce her into engaging in sex acts with him “rang[ing] from oral sex to sexual intercourse.” She claimed that Berry’s sexual abuse occurred for the latter part of 2016 until he was promoted in December 2016.

She claimed that Ellis volunteered to walk her back to her cell after her shift, find a location that was not covered by surveillance cameras and then “coerce her into performing oral sex on him.” She claimed that Ellis forced her into sexual acts “on a nearly daily basis” from October 2015 through March 2016.

According to the lawsuit, Pierce “forced Jennifer to perform oral sex on him” from late 2015 to early 2016. She claimed that Bailey passed around naked photos of her without her knowledge or consent.

In addition to these specific allegations, Cantoni also claimed that other unnamed officers would “routinely grab [her] on the rear-end, on her breasts, and around her vaginal area” and make “lewd comments about her body” and about the color of her underwear.

Her lawsuit also identified other officers, not named as defendants in the lawsuit, who allegedly harasser or abused her. She accused George Gonzalez of coming “up to [her] as she was cleaning the locker room, put[ting] her against the wall, and forc[ing] her to have sex with him.”

She further claimed that during previous periods of incarceration at the jail, Officers Carl Ranier, Eddie Ortiz, Johnnie Gomez and Assistant Warden Vandal Lee all “forced [her] into non-consensual sex acts.”

Cantoni also alleged that because of her addiction, jail officers knew that she needed money and that she “would resort to having sex [with them] for money” during the times that she was not in jail. She claimed that “Officer Johnnie Gomez, Sgt. Brad Pierce, Assistant Warden Vandal Lee, and Captain Carl Ranier all met with Jennifer for sex for money while she was not in jail.” Cantoni claimed that she “knew that she could not turn down any of their solicitations, or she would face problems the next time she was in Cumberland County Jail.” She claimed that she also was concerned that her son, who was also a jail inmate, would suffer retaliation if she she refused officers’ demands for sex.

The case is captioned Jennifer Cantoni v. Cumberland County, Federal Case No. 1:17-cv-07893 and Cantoni’ attorney was Mark R. Natale of Mount Laurel. Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement’s terms to others, including the media. In this case, the clause prohibits disclosure of even the existence of the agreement. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public’s right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of Cantoni’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants or any of the other jail officers named in the lawsuit. All that is known for sure is that Cumberland County or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Cantoni $150,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project