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Law Signed That Establishes Oversight of Prisons and Helps Incarcerated Parents Maintain Family Bonds

January 9, 2020

Bill provides critical corrections oversight and increases opportunities for visitation time, placement close to children, trauma-informed care, parenting classes, and essential health products, among other provisions

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law that could provide a historic level of oversight of New Jersey prisons and make it easier for incarcerated parents to maintain connection with their families even through prison walls.

The “Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act,” A3979/S2540, provides expanded opportunities for parents to connect with loved ones and increases transparency, accountability and oversight of the Department of Corrections. This law creates one of the strongest corrections oversight structures in the country by strengthening the Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson, an independent office that reports directly to the governor. The bill was sponsored by Assemblymembers Lopez, Vainieri Huttle, and Reynolds-Jackson, and Senators Greenstein, Cruz-Perez, and Ruiz.

“The promise of this law is enormous: it presents greater opportunity for parents in prison to maintain connections with their children outside, and it will provide them, their families, and all New Jerseyans with access to one of the most robust independent corrections oversight structures in the country. We commend Gov. Murphy and the Legislature for recognizing the inhumanity of mass incarceration and taking steps to further solidify New Jersey’s position among the vanguard of states committed to robust criminal justice reforms,” said ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Tess Borden.

The law substantially increases the scope and powers of the existing Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson. The office will identify systemic issues and ensure compliance with laws and policies governing the treatment of prisoners. The ombudsperson will receive and investigate complaints concerning incarceration from a wide variety of sources: incarcerated people, their families, government agencies, advocates, and anyone with knowledge of what happens inside. Crucially, the ombudsperson will conduct inspections of prison facilities, which may include unannounced visits. In an important change, prisoners’ dealings with the ombudsperson’s office will be treated with the confidentiality of legal correspondence.

The office will also assist prisoners in self-advocacy and has a mandate to play an active role in legislative and policy developments affecting correctional facilities.

Among one of the most significant components of the law is the creation of a nine-person advisory board to advise the ombudsperson, with appointment power split evenly among the governor, Senate president, and Assembly speaker. The board must include at least one formerly incarcerated person or family member of someone currently incarcerated, as well as members with expertise in investigations,  health  care, sexual assault victims’ advocacy,  social work, occupational safety and health, and research and data analysis.

“One tragedy of our country’s epidemic of mass incarceration is that people are locked away from view and made to feel as though they’re forgotten. This law recognizes that reform of our criminal justice system requires opportunities for families to maintain bonds, and it requires an empowered oversight authority to provide avenues to address injustices,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “We also must remember that New Jersey has the highest Black-white racial disparity in incarceration in the country. The implementation of this law must be as much about racial justice as it is about criminal justice.”

The law also creates substantial opportunities for increased community and public involvement. The ombudsperson will hold public meetings and issue public reports, and prison administrators must rectify any identified problems and report on their progress.

In addition to its robust oversight the law promotes visitation in state prisons by allowing visitation hours six days a week, for at least three hours at a time, and opens greater possibilities for people to be placed in facilities closer to their children. It also requires state prisons and county jails to provide certain health staples on request for free, such as menstrual products and over-the-counter pain relief medication. Finally, the law prohibits shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant people, provides opportunities for parenting classes, requires provision of trauma-informed care, and mandates training of correctional police on interacting with victims of trauma. The law creates opportunities for former prisoners to mentor people who are currently incarcerated and help as they re-join their communities. Several of its provisions are modeled after federal legislation first introduced by U.S. Senator Cory Booker in 2017.

“We thank Governor Murphy, the sponsors of this legislation, and its supporters for making important progress to accountability within the intrinsically thick walls that prevent injustices from seeing the light of day,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo. “We look forward to working with Governor Murphy, 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, and we encourage them all to ensure that this law lives up to its potential for reform.”

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