The incarceration of women in New Jersey, and nationwide, can destroy their families’ security and earning power. The experience can also decimate the imprisoned women’s dignity and humanity.
That was the message from participants in the “women’s panel” session at the New Jersey Reentry Corporation’s annual conference Thursday, at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City. Several participants were speaking from personal experience.
The panelists said women leaving prison need more help than is currently available to secure fair-paying jobs and affordable housing, plus assistance in reconnecting with and potentially recovering custody of their children. But other changes are required behind the walls of correctional facilities, like expanding options for family visits and providing full access to basic personal needs, like tampons and sanitary pads.
“The prison system strips you of all your dignity,” said Topeka Sam, the panel moderator, who served time in the federal correctional system before founding the Ladies of Hope Ministries. The New York City-based group works on several fronts to help vulnerable women and girls.
Most former inmates — male and female — face massive challenges finding housing, work and help addressing addictions when they leave prison; at least seven in 10 of those incarcerated have substance use disorders, studies show.
Turned down for jobs years later
“It’s been almost eight years since I’ve been incarcerated,” recalled panelist Rosalie Bethea, who was a Reentry Corp. client before becoming an employee. “I’ve changed the way I walk. I’ve changed the way I talk. I’ve changed everything about me. But I still get denied” when applying for jobs, she said.
One complication is that most of the extremely limited support services available for re-entry are geared toward men, the speakers suggested, leaving women to navigate the post-prison landscape largely on their own. This journey is further complicated by sexism, potential parenting demands, and, in many cases, the long-term impact of domestic violence or other abuse.
According to the Ladies of Hope Ministries, or LOHM, more than 1 million women nationwide are now under the control of the justice system, a population that has grown 800 percent over the past three decades — a rate faster than for men. Half of these female inmates suffer from mental-health issues and three-quarters have experienced domestic or partner violence. Eight in 10 are mothers and nearly nine in 10 have endured sexual assault, LOHM reports.
In New Jersey, roughly 600 women are now held at the state’s only female prison, the embattled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, in Hunterdon County. The jail has come under increasing scrutiny following a series of reports in nj.com regarding allegations of inmate abuse and other violations, which triggered several investigations, including an ongoing federal probe. According to reports, eight jail employees have been charged with assault and other crimes since 2016.
State lawmakers have responded with a package of bills designed to address these concerns, including stricter reporting requirements related to violations, and a proposal to create a commission to recommend additional reforms. Other measures would ban cross-gender strip searches and require sensitivity training for correctional officers.
Trying to keep family connection
Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, one of the panelists and lead sponsor of several of the bills, also highlighted her “Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act,” now making its way through the legislative process, which seeks to make it easier for families to spend quality time with a loved one in prison. According to 2016 data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, nearly 90,000 New Jersey children had a parent who had been jailed at some point in their lives.
“The whole family suffers when women are incarcerated,” said Lopez (D-Middlesex).
Among other things, the “Dignity” proposal (A-3979) calls for children to be able to visit incarcerated parents for eight-hour sessions at least six days a week, to enable incarcerated parents to play a real role in the lives of their children, and would establish a pilot program for overnight visits. It would also require inmates to have access to parenting classes, expand electronic communication options for those in jail, and create a mentoring program to help mothers with re-entry.
“I want you to consider the trauma to children who are not able to visit their parents,” Sam noted. Visitation rights are critical, she said, “so women can have the dignity of knowing, ‘I am a mother’.”
In addition, the “Dignity” bill would outlaw both solitary confinement and shackling of pregnant women. It also calls for the establishment of an ombudsman’s office to monitor and respond to abuse allegations. “It’s sad that (corrections officials) just rip away their child at birth and then they go right back to jail,” an emotional Bethea recalled.
‘…can you help me get my children back?
Newark Council President Mildred Crump, another panelist, said that she meets young mothers fresh out of jail every week. The first thing they ask for is help finding a job, she said, but then comes a more heart-breaking request: “Ms. Crump, can you help me get my children back?”
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, chair of the Reentry Corp., said the organization is working to expand services to women and will be partnering with LOHM to create a women’s housing program for former inmates. But he agreed the state could do more to strengthen families in the short term, by expanding visitation and the use of online technology, like the online calling service Skype, which other states have permitted to help families stay in touch.
“We need to do so much more in New Jersey to maintain that sacred communication between mother and child,” McGreevey said.