New Jersey needs to improve prison services for women, report says

New Jersey needs to improve prison services for women, report says

Kathy Morse served five years in prison, which caused her “so much trauma that I honestly don’t think I’ll live long enough to process it,” she said. 

Morse said she was sexually assaulted by four other inmates, received incorrect medical results through poor healthcare services, and when she was released in April 2014, she said had to navigate post-prison life by herself. When she asked if there were re-entry services available to her, she said her parole officer laughed. 

“There’s no dummies’ guide to reentry, no cheering squad, no one picking you up when you fall,” Morse said. “There were days when I simply did not want to go on. It was a daily struggle not to give up. I had my daughter and I sometimes believe that is what kept me going.”

New Jersey is failing women in the state’s correctional facilities, and needs to do more to remedy the inequities and abuses that female inmates face, according to a report of more than 70 recommendations from the Commission on Reentry Services for Women released Monday. 

At a press event announcing those recommendations at the New Jersey State House, former inmates like Morse shared disturbing stories of abuse at the hands of prison guards and other inmates, and the difficulties re-acclimating to society once they were released during a press conference at the statehouse on Monday. Political leaders, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, committed to crafting bills addressing solutions dealing with employment, healthcare, housing, reuniting families and domestic violence.  

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The report comes in the wake of reported abuse at New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, which houses more than 500 state-sentenced women. The facility failed to protect these women from sexual abuse by staff, according to a Department of Justice investigation. From 2016 to 2019, six employees were convicted or plead guilty to sexual abuse charges of more than 10 women, the report said. 

Rashida Smith, 43, spent 17 years at Edna Mahen. Speaking at the State House on Monday, she told a story about how a prison guard repeatedly slammed her head against the guard’s booth. She was sent to lock-up for “assaulting a guard” and was only released after witnesses spoke up on her behalf. 

“We shouldn’t have to pay like that,” Smith said. “We come out broken.”

When Smith was incarcerated, she did not receive treatment for a cyst she developed until her family got involved, according to the report. By that time, she had to undergo emergency surgery. 

Healthcare services for women are woefully lacking in New Jersey correctional institutions, the report says. The state should mandate screenings for sexually transmitted diseases, pap smears and breast cancer, provide reproductive health counseling, and make sure pregnant inmates have the healthcare and nutrition they need, according to the report. 

Nakisha Bradley, 43, said she did not have access to proper mental health treatment to help her cope with abuse from her husband, who she has a restraining order against, or treatment for her cocaine addiction.  That continued after she was incarcerated: Her mental health treatment available was “they gave us whatever it was to shut us up,” she said. On top of that, she said “I was abused, sexually, mentally, physically. I needed help.”

The state should improve domestic violence programming in prisons and financial classes that help inmates not rely on abusive partners for money or housing. Former inmates on parole and probation should be given leniency if they cannot comply with release requirements, such as having a place to live, if an abusive partner kicks them out, for example. 

Nationally, the incarceration rate for women has increased eight times compared to 1980, and more than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under 18 years old. These statistics mirror those in New Jersey, the report states. 

To address these statistics and the problems endemic to women in jails and prisons, the commission recommends, among 70 ideas: 

  • Improve visitation policies to help mothers stay in contact with their children and family members
  • Provide transitional housing or “rental coupons” to help women have a place to live after leaving prison, and reduce the risk of returning to an abusive household
  • Fund vouchers to help formerly incarcerated mothers obtain childcare services if they are looking for a job

Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s legislature and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: Twitter: @abalcerzak 

Published at Mon, 21 Sep 2020 13:00:00 +0000

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