To provide incarcerated individuals who are parents and the primary caregivers of their children with certain protections to help preserve familial bonds that are often crucial to rehabilitation, legislation sponsored by Assemblywomen Yvonne Lopez, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson received final legislative approval on Monday, passing the full Assembly by a vote of 50-13 ,and the Senate, 28-11.
The bill (A-3979) would establish the “Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act” to focus on incarcerated parents in state and county correctional facilities–a growing segment of the prison population typically excluded from the criminal justice reform conversation. While most parents in prison are fathers, the rate of female incarceration in America continues to grow rapidly. A 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that, since 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison had more than doubled, up 131 percent. The number of children with a father in prison had grown by 77 percent. The report also found a faster rate of growth in the number of mothers held in state and federal prisons (up 122 percent), compared to the number of fathers (up 76 percent) between 1991 and midyear 2007.
Whether male or female, all incarcerated parents face unique challenges as their incarceration impacts the entire family.
The current status-quo in the correctional system can make it hard for these parents to maintain relationships with their children. Many face difficult choices, such as whether to use their limited funds to call home to talk with their children, or to purchase hygiene products in the commissary.
“Today, the State of New Jersey took a first step in passing one of the strongest inmate advocacy bills in the nation,” said Lopez (D-Middlesex). “For far too long inmates and their families have suffered from outdated policies and a lack of basic rights. The Dignity Act will afford inmates the protections they deserve to improve reentry and make the prison experience rehabilitative instead of punitive.”
“Prison sentences should not destroy families,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “Women should not be shackled while incarcerated during childbirth. By passing this legislation, we are helping families to stay connected, reducing rates of recidivism and ensuring that women are provided protections from negligence and abuse while serving their sentence.”
“Children often bear emotional and psychological scars due to the actions of their parents, many of whom were victims of similar wounds themselves,” said Reynolds-Jackson (D-Hunterdon, Mercer). “This legislation is intended to help prevent such dysfunction, which in some instances is generational.”
“As the legislative year comes to a close, New Jersey has been hard at work reforming our criminal justice system so that it will treat incarcerated women with dignity, restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals, and put a stop to hair discrimination,” said Senator Cory Booker (D- New Jersey). “All New Jerseyans deserve to be treated with decency and respect, and each of these measures will end unequitable and disenfranchising realities that too many have been facing. Our criminal justice system is alarmingly unequipped to handle the needs of incarcerated women, leaving them to face conditions that can be devastating and traumatic. The time these women spend incarcerated should be focused on rehabilitating, keeping in touch with their families, and not worrying about having their most basic needs met.”
The bill would require the Commissioner of Corrections and the chief executive officer of each county correctional facility in the state to adopt the following policies concerning primary caretakers of children:
- Place primary caretaker parent inmates with children in a facility as close to that child as possible.
- Promote and encourage visitation policies.
- Prohibit solitary confinement and shackling of pregnant inmates.
- Provide inmates with parenting classes and trauma informed care, and corrections officers with training on how to interact with victims of trauma.
- Allow former inmates to mentor incarcerated parents and assist them with reentry.
In addition, the bill would require that the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson monitor inmate allegations of physical abuse including, but not limited to: sexual abuse and sexual assault; abuse in segregated housing; abusive strip searches; abuse occurring during prisoner transport; malnutrition; and failure to provide, free-of-charge, requested feminine hygiene products that meet industry standards, as well as aspirin, ibuprofen and any other items deemed appropriate by the commissioner.
The bill also mandates that the Office provides information to inmates and their families; promote the rights of inmates; identify systemic issues and possible responses; and ensure compliance with relevant laws and policies. In addition, corrections officers and other employees would be prohibited from entering restrooms of inmates of the opposite sex except when necessary and pregnant women and inmates who are primary caretaker parents would be allowed to enroll in residential drug abuse programs.
The measure now heads to the Governor for further consideration.