NEWARK, NJ - Middlesex County Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez and U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) held a roundtable discussion on Monday with criminal justice reform advocates and formally incarcerated women to discuss legislation Lopez and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle are introducing, modeled after legislation Booker introduced in the Senate, to reform the way women are treated behind bars.
“Dignity must be afforded to all of us regardless of circumstance or standing,” said Lopez (D-19th Dist). “A prison sentence is punishment enough and this experience must not also be coupled with abuse and a lack of basic rights.”
Lopez, who joined the state Legislature in January and is quickly making a mark, said she was encouraged the legislation would open a dialogue about incarcerated caregivers.
As a mother, the idea of being the primary caregiver for my child and having limited access to them is unimaginable," she said.
The legislators met at the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice and and were joined by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, Ryan Haygood, President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice, Amol Sinha, Executive Director of ACLU-NJ, Gale Muhammad, CEO and Founder of Women who Never Give Up, and Shana Herman and Maria Szizos, New Jersey residents impacted by the proposed reforms.
“Over the last four decades, incarceration rates in our nation have exploded, leaving families torn apart, costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and doing little to improve public safety,” said Booker.
“Often left out of this conversation are incarcerated women, a majority of whom are mothers and who face a unique set of challenges. We must take these challenges into account when we place women in prison facilities if we are to ensure they are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve," he said.
During the roundtable, Lopez unveiled the "Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caregivers Parents Act," which she will sponsor along with Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle and will introduce in the Assembly in the coming weeks.
This act will require that feminine hygiene products are not limited in any way shape or form and are provided to women, free of cost. This bill will also provide trauma informed care to incarcerated people and allow formerly incarcerated people to mentor currently incarcerated people on how to lead successful lives after prison. Finally, the bill will also appoint an ombudsman to monitor allegations of physical abuse and sexual assault.
In July, Booker introduced legislation that aims to reform the way women are treated while incarcerated. The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act outlines a series of reforms to how the federal prison system treats incarcerated women in order to reduce the negative impact incarceration has on the family members of women behind bars, especially their children, and better prepare incarcerated women to return to their communities.
A few weeks after the introduction of Booker’s legislation, the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued new guidelines explicitly requiring all facilities to provide incarcerated women access to feminine hygiene products, including tampons and pads, at no cost to incarcerated people – one of the reforms included in Booker’s legislation.
“Not having immediate access to a primary caregiver can be traumatizing for children as well as their parent or guardian,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “With that in mind, it is vital that we continue to hear the concerns by those affected and encourage discussion in which we raise awareness of these difficulties as well as act upon bettering the challenges these families face.”
“After hearing from the brave men and women who shared their experiences with us, there is clearly a problem in our correctional system which does not align with what our state represents in terms of fairness and equality for all. This bill will benefit men, women, and children that are all impacted by the experience of prison, and will help them to go on and lead a better life afterwards,” Lopez said.