Bill allowing pregnant prisoners to stay with child gets Senate companion

By: - November 29, 2021 6:50 am

If passed, New Jersey would join a group of roughly 10 states that allow imprisoned mothers to remain with their child after giving birth. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

An Assembly bill that would impose new limits of inmate discipline and allow women who give birth behind bars to stay with their child got a Senate companion Monday.

If passed, New Jersey would join a group of roughly 10 states that allow imprisoned mothers to remain with their child after giving birth.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016 estimated 4% of women entering prisons were pregnant.

The proposed nursery program would allow incarcerated women with no outstanding warrants, history of child abuse, or evidence of drug use during pregnancy to be transferred to a residential community release program.

Children can remain in the program until they turn two or their mother is released.

Those serving sentences for crimes named in the No Early Release Act — that list includes murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, sexual assault, terrorism, and some property crimes — are not eligible.

Convictions for crimes committed against minors under the age of 16 are also disqualifying, as are serious violations committed while incarcerated.

If passed, the bill would require the state provide parenting classes to women in the community release program and doula services to pregnant inmates.

The Female Inmates’ Rights Protection Act would also require the state corrections commissioner to adhere to a new set of principles when drafting punishments for rule breaking.

Provisions require the commissioner to consider gender when drafting punishments; address substance use, trauma, and other mental health issues; and implement policies that promote inmates’ familial and community connections, among other things.

Employees at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, a prison with a history of sexual and physical abuses, would be required to complete training on gender-responsive policies within two years of the bill taking effect. If passed, the bill would go into effect seven months after its enactment.

The Assembly passed the bill in June in an overwhelming 70-2 vote. That passage came months after a series of severe beatings at Edna Mahan, the state’s only women’s prison.

State authorities allege ten of the facility’s guards and supervisors severely beat inmates and, in some cases, falsified reports in an alleged attempt to cover up the abuses.

Gov. Phil Murphy in June said he would shutter the prison, which fostered a reputation for sexual assault over decades. That process is expected to take years, and it’s unclear where women incarcerated there will be held after Edna Mahan shuts down.

In August, New Jersey and the U.S. Department of Justice reached a proposed consent decree to address long-standing sexual abuses at Edna Mahan. That settlement, approved by a judge in September, mandates oversight by an independent monitor, the creation of a confidential abuse reporting system for inmates, and safeguards against whistleblower retaliation, among other protections.

The January cell extractions eventually forced state Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks to resign from his post. Victoria Kuhn, his chief of staff, was appointed acting commissioner while the state conducts a nationwide search for a replacement.

There’s been little apparent movement in that search since Hicks resigned in early June, one day after an independent report drafted by former state comptroller Matt Boxer and commissioned by Murphy found numerous leadership and communication breakdowns within the Department of Corrections.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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