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Making Life a Little Easier for Women — or Any Parent — Serving Time in Prison

High-profile arrests of prison guards charged with sexual assault in state’s only women’s prison draw attention to problems some lawmakers say have been neglected too long

women in prison
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, Assemblywomen Yvonne Lopez, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, and former inmate Maria Szizos.

Decrying the treatment of women incarcerated in New Jersey, state lawmakers are introducing legislation designed to make life a little better for them — and all parents — serving time.

The effort follows the arrests in recent years of a half-dozen prison guards on charges of official misconduct and sexual assault of inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, the state’s only women’s prison. A state Senate committee also held a recent hearing on sexual abuse in prisons.

The proposed bill, to be co-sponsored by Assemblywomen Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex) and Valerie Vaineri Huttle (D-Bergen), would create an ombudsman to investigate allegations of abuse and other mistreatment of women. It would also increase visitation periods; improve care and mentoring for inmates; and require that women receive free feminine hygiene products, aspirin, and similar items. It is modeled after the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act introduced in Congress last summer by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ.

Tough road ahead for legislation

While Booker admitted his bill faces “a very steep hill” moving through the current Republican-controlled Congress, he said it has inspired a number of states to work on passing similar legislation for their prison populations, and his staff is working with officials to support their efforts. State measures to improve prison conditions are critical because only 10 percent of all those incarcerated are in federal custody. At the same time, shortly after the introduction of Booker’s bill, the Federal Bureau of Prisons released new guidelines requiring that women receive hygiene products for free, which is one of the provisions of Booker’s legislation.

“I was stunned at how little I knew about the issues these women are talking about,” said Booker, adding he had spent more time on the problems facing incarcerated men. “I think this country really needs to come to grips with what we are doing. When you punish women in such an inhumane manner, it doesn’t stop there. It affects children. It affects communities.”

Booker and Lopez held a panel discussion on Monday in Newark with advocates and two former inmates to discuss the legislation and the broader problems with the treatment of women by the prison system.

“Reentry from incarceration should lead to a better life. However, for our women, the experiences they have endured while incarcerated almost ensure that their lives will be filled with trauma and horrific memories of their time in prison,” Lopez said. “Dignity must be afforded to all of us regardless of circumstance or standing. A prison sentence is punishment enough and this experience must not also be coupled with abuse and a lack of basic rights.”

Titled the Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caregiver Parents Act, Lopez said the bill is designed to “provide incarcerated primary caregiver parents with expanded rights, services, and programs, finally providing them with the protections they deserve.”

Life on the inside

The indignities women face in prison range from the seemingly minor to unbearable, according to the women who discussed their experiences and those of others they know.

Shana Herman, who was released from incarceration six years ago, said that to take a shower, she often had to wipe the wall of the stall to get water.

“While I was there, there was very limited access to treatment for mental health reasons or for physical conditions,” said Herman. When she contracted a skin condition that affected her scalp, Herman said, “It took a while to get medication. When I finally got the shampoo, it was hard to find the time to use it.”

While providing women with free feminine hygiene products may sound like a small action, it can make a huge difference, said Maria Szizos, who left Mahan after serving time 14 years ago and now is a manager at the Good News Home for Women in Flemington. She said that women in prison are paid very little for their work there. When any fines and fees are assessed as part of a sentence, they are taken out of that salary, leaving little left to buy what they may need.

“The choice becomes whether to buy a tampon or hygiene products as opposed to buying some stamps to send their child a letter or send a few dollars home for their child or buy something for their child,” Szizos said. “They have to make those harsh choices in order to be able to survive, and those choices don’t even meet the needs of the individual who is incarcerated. So they wind up as prey, and as prey, they are susceptible to sexual abuse, to being taken advantage of.”

Falling prey to sexual assault

It is not surprising that the women fall victim to sexual assault in prison, as one study found that some 86 percent of incarcerated women have suffered sexual violence before being sentenced to confinement, Lopez said.

There have been a number of high-profile cases of sexual assault at Mahan, which has about 600 inmates on its Hunterdon County campus. Within the past two years, at least six corrections officers have been charged with multiple accounts of sexual assault and official misconduct. Two have pled guilty and are serving time in prison. The trial of another former guard is ongoing in Superior Court in Hunterdon County.

Prison officials and the state corrections commissioner were recently named in two lawsuits filed on behalf of women at Mahan, alleging a pattern of sexual assaults of inmates by guards that administrators and state officials ignored.

Szizos said Lopez’s bill, which is awaiting introduction, does not go far enough to cure all the problems that women face in prison, but it is a start. Both she and Herman said women need greater access to education and training, and to medical and mental health treatment.

The bill would require a number of changes meant to help parents and women who are incarcerated. It would:

  • Require inmates with children be placed in a facility as close to those children as possible.

  • Permit visitation at least six days a week, including weekends, for at least eight hours a day, to include contact visits and no limit on the number of children who could visit. There is also a provision for a pilot program to test the possibility of allowing overnight visitation.

  • Prohibit solitary confinement and shackling of pregnant inmates.

  • Require parenting classes and special care for those who have experienced trauma.

  • Allow former inmates to mentor those still incarcerated to help them with re-entry into society.

  • Permit enrollment in residential drug-abuse programs.

  • Provide feminine hygiene products, soap, Vaseline, aspirin, and other necessary items free of charge.

  • Allow free telephone calls and videoconferencing with family.

While no one from the Murphy administration was present at the meeting, Booker said he was sure the governor is sympathetic to this issue. Lopez said she is planning to introduce the bill soon and is seeking sponsorship for it in the state Senate. She acknowledged that even more must be done.

“The over-incarceration of women is an issue that we must all continue to contend with; however, while in prison, women should not have to experience a hellish life day in and day out,” Lopez said. “There is clearly a problem in our correctional system, a problem that is insidious and directly targets women … In our correctional facilities it is obvious that the dignity of our incarcerated women has not been a priority. I will make it my focus to see that this bill becomes law.”

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