Lopez, Vainieri Huttle, Reynolds-Jackson "Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act" Signed into Law

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 was signed into law Thursday by Governor Phil Murphy.

The law (formerly A-3979), known as the “Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act,” focuses 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 has enacted 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 “For far too long inmates and their families have suffered from outdated policies and a lack of basic rights.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 enacting this law, 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 law is intended to help prevent such dysfunction, which in some instances is generational.”

“With the Dignity Act now signed into law, New Jersey has taken another important step to restore justice to our criminal justice system,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey). “A majority of women behind bars are survivors of trauma or abuse and our current system is not equipped to provide the trauma-informed care these women deserve. This legislation will make a series of common-sense changes to address their unique circumstances, treating them more decently and humanely, and ultimately, better preparing them for successful lives outside of prison. I applaud Governor Murphy for signing this into law and Assemblywomen Yvonne Lopez, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Senators Linda Greenstein and Teresa Ruiz for their tireless work to move this through our state’s legislature.”

“The promise of this law is enormous: it creates greater opportunity for parents in prison to maintain connections with their children outside, and, crucially, it will give them, their families, and all New Jerseyans access to one of the most robust independent corrections oversight entities in the country,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “We thank the sponsors for their leadership and continued vision to make New Jersey a leader in criminal justice reform. This law recognizes the urgency of tearing down the walls that prevent injustices in prison from seeing the light of day, and it recognizes that when people maintain the bonds that matter most to all of us, New Jersey is stronger. Distressingly, our state has the most severe Black-white racial disparity in incarceration in the country, making it essential that implementation of this law is as much about racial justice as it is about criminal justice.”

The law requires 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.

The Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson is required under the law to 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.

Additionally, the new statute requires that the Office provide 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. Corrections officers and other employees are 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.

It will take effect on the first day of the seventh month following enactment.