Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and three co-sponsors have introduced S. 1524, the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act,” meant to improve the treatment of female federal inmates who are the primary caretakers of children.
The bill, proposed July 11, would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to create a new office to determine prisoners’ geographic assignments. That office must place inmates who have children as close to their children as possible. Other appropriate factors may also be considered.
BOP will also be directed to issue regulations allowing inmates who are primary caretakers to receive visits from family members up to six days per week, including Saturdays and Sundays, with at least eight hours per day available for such visits. Federal penal or correctional institutions would be allowed to set five as the maximum number of adults to visit a prisoner, but could not limit the number of children who could join in a family visit. Unless the prisoner presents an immediate physical danger to visitors, the prisoner must be permitted physical contact with them.
The bill will also prohibit segregated housing for pregnant inmates, or for those within eight weeks of having given birth, unless that inmate presents an immediate risk of harm to herself or others. Even when permitted, such placements must be limited and temporary. Shackles, handcuffs, straitjackets, and other restraint devices can never be used on pregnant inmates.
Under the proposed legislation, BOP will also have to provide parenting classes to primary-caretaker inmates, give trauma-informed care to every prisoner diagnosed with trauma, and train all correctional staff and other BOP employees who regularly interact with inmates on trauma identification and referrals.
The bill’s health section requires BOP to provide appropriate quantities of sanitary products, plus non-lye soap, shampoo, body lotion, petroleum jelly, toothpaste and toothbrushes, aspirin and ibuprofen, and other products the agency deems appropriate, as well as ensure female inmates can access gynecological care. BOP will also have to issue regulations requiring sex-appropriate restrictions on non-emergency strip searches and bathroom entry.
Telecommunications provisions of the bill will forbid BOP from charging inmates fees for phone calls, and will make free videoconferencing available in all federal correctional institutions, but not allow videoconferencing to substitute for in-person visits.
The bill will require the Attorney General to designate an ombudsman to monitor federal performance in the areas of prisoner transportation, segregated incarceration, prisoner strip searches, and civil rights violations. The BOP will outline rules allowing former federal prisoners to return to mentor inmates or to help them prepare for community re-entry. As well, the BOP cannot exclude primary-caretaker parents and pregnant women from participating in residential substance abuse treatment even when the inmate failed to disclose such a problem when entering BOP custody.
Finally, the Dignity Act also mandates that the BOP create a pilot program allowing eligible inmates who are primary-caretaker parents to have overnight visits from family members. The bill lets BOP set eligibility standards for inmates participating in the pilot program, and specifically mandates that they take into account the inmate’s good behavior and not having been convicted of a violent crime.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has thus far not scheduled any action, and neither DOJ nor BOP has yet made official comment on the bill.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.