BY ASSEMBLYWOMAN LOPEZ & SENATOR GREENSTEIN
The experience of prison is a severe punishment – the loss of freedom and the loss of control over one’s life are tremendously difficult. However, incarceration plays an important role in our criminal justice system. And while there are crimes that require long-term sentences, these punishments should never come with a loss of basic human dignity. Far too often, that is exactly what happens.
Structural and systemic policies are resulting in the mass dehumanization of incarcerated men and women in New Jersey’s prisons. There is no dignity in an incarcerated woman using old socks as menstrual pads because her commissary account is low, and she has to choose between buying new pads or affording to make a phone call to her family.
There is no dignity in a parent having to endure strictly guarded visitation programs where hugs with their children are limited. And there is absolutely no dignity in shackling pregnant women in labor and during transport for purported security concerns. A person is still a person, and the prison sentence does not mean a person’s humanity is also locked away.
Our corrections system is in need of sweeping changes. Congress rose to the challenge this year by passing the “First Step Act,” which made widespread changes to improve conditions in the federal prison system. It is time for us to take similar action in New Jersey. We must ensure that through the entire criminal process of punishment and rehabilitation, a person’s dignity remains unharmed and intact. This will better enable those who are reentering society to function successfully.
We can begin by helping incarcerated parents who are primary caretakers stay connected to their families. Children may have experienced trauma related to their parent’s arrest, and the disrupted family life may impact their mental health and social well-being.
The fact remains that children need a parent in their lives. No matter what mistakes their parents have made, a child’s love knows no bounds. It is incredibly important that incarcerated primary caregivers maintain relationships with their children, both for the sake of the child and the parent’s own mental health. Fostering familial bonds may help formerly incarcerated individuals transition back into society with greater ease, assisting in the reentry process and reducing their chances of re-offending in the future.
The Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act (A-3979), a bill moving through the New Jersey Legislature, will help families stay connected by requiring incarcerated primary caretaker parents to be placed in a facility as close to their children as possible, and by offering expanded hours of visitation. The number of children allowed to visit would not be restricted, and expanded contact visits would be provided.
“The Dignity Act” also goes a step further to improve conditions for incarcerated people by requiring training for correctional officers to interact with trauma victims; and allowing former inmates to mentor incarcerated parents and assist them prior to their reentry into society.
The legislation will also make key enhancements to the Office for the Ombudsman for Corrections to serve as an independent and unbiased advocate for those who are incarcerated. This office will perform multiple tasks, from monitoring allegations of physical and sexual abuse or assault to collecting and analyzing critical data points in all state correctional facilities – which would provide a basis for the Legislature and governor to hold the facilities and system accountable.
Data will monitor grievances from inmates, instances of assault on inmates and other metrics to ensure basic dignity is not impacted. The ombudsman will provide much needed oversight to our broken correctional system. Successful reentry benefits us all, and reentry begins with the prison experience. Preventing individuals from being re-traumatized while in prison is key to their future welfare when reentering society. A prison sentence is harsh enough, and this experience must not be coupled with further abuse and a lack of basic rights.
“The Dignity Act” is moving through the Legislature and it is our hope that we, along with Gov. Phil Murphy, can make it the law of our state before the end of the year. We cannot wait for these changes to occur – the future of countless children, parents and families depend on it.
Senator Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer, Middlesex) and Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex) represent the 14th and 19th legislative districts respectively in the New Jersey Legislature. They are the primary sponsors of “The Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act.”