Bill provides critical oversight protections, guarantees visitation time, placement close to children, parenting classes, and essential health products, among other provisions

December 16, 2019

A bill intended to strengthen families separated by incarceration passed the Legislature, offering support for incarcerated parents of minor children. The “Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act,” A3979/S2540, provides expanded opportunities for parents to communicate and connect with loved ones and increases transparency, accountability and oversight of the Department of Corrections.

“The tragedy of mass incarceration ripples outward, straining families and placing unfair burdens on children. This legislation aims to support families during a period of incarceration so that parents and children can maintain some degree of connection even through prison walls,” said ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Tess Borden.

Passage of this bill creates some of the strongest protections for people in custody and their families in the country through the strengthening of the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson, an independent office that reports directly to the Governor. Under the bill, the Office would be assisted by an Advisory Board, with appointments by the Governor, Senate President, and Assembly Speaker. At least one position would be filled by a formerly incarcerated person or family member of a current prisoner.  The Dignity for Incarcerated Caretakers Act has the potential to transform this office into a trusted entity that incarcerated people and their families can turn to in order to address concerns, builds transparency for the public, and provides ongoing monitoring to ensure that incarcerated people receive the services they need.  

The legislation also promotes visitation in state prisons by allowing visitation hours six days a week, for at least three hours at a time, and places people in facilities as close to their children as possible. To ensure that parents don’t have to choose between paying for telephone calls with their children and taking care of their essential needs, state prisons and county jails must provide basic health staples on request for free, such as menstrual products and over-the-counter pain relief medication.

A3979/S2540 prohibits shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant people, provides opportunities for parenting classes, requires the provision of trauma-informed care to people in prison and jail and training of correctional police officers on interacting with victims of trauma, and allows former prisoners to mentor people who are currently incarcerated and assist them as they re-join their communities. Several of its provisions are modeled after federal legislation first introduced by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker in 2017.

“We thank the sponsors of this legislation and its supporters for their compassion, leadership, and vision for reform. This legislation makes important progress in keeping the bonds of families strong and ensures that individuals and families are able to access the services and systemic accountability that they need,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo. “We look forward to working with the Governor, Senate and Assembly leadership, the Department of Corrections, and appointees to the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson and Advisory Board as they move forward in their work.”

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