A prison sentence shouldn't tear a family apart.

That's the idea behind a proposed law that would revamp the rights of inmates in New Jersey who are also parents.

Under the legislation, which cleared the full Assembly in May and a Senate committee in June, state inmates who are the primary caretaker of their child would have to be placed in a facility as close to that child as possible.

The bill also encourages and promotes family visitation by establishing minimum hours, including on the weekends, and prohibiting restrictions on the number of children allowed to visit.

“Our society has made strides in understanding and addressing mental health issues and it’s time for our criminal justice system to do the same,” said state Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, D-Camden. “There are many mentally taxing attributes of incarceration and being away from your children for an extended period of time is emotionally exhausting for any individual. This can lead to mentally devastating consequences for the inmates and their families."

William Sullivan, executive vice president of PBA Local 105, said he's pleased to see the bill has been revised to eliminate the idea of overnight child visits, but the bill's proposed changes still don't seem feasible.

"I'm opposed to the bill because it doesn't provide additional staffing," Sullivan told New Jersey 101.5. "The visitation requirements will require additional supervision, additional correctional personnel, and offers will be needed to manage the children and their activities."

Sullivan said visitors "go to all lengths" to smuggle contraband into the prison, including using a baby's diaper.

"Increasing visitations, increasing the number of children you're allowed in, not restricting adult visitors, will just lead to increased drug use and drug smuggling through the visitation programs," he said.

Among other mandates, the bill also requires that parenting classes be made available to inmates, and prohibits the shackling of pregnant inmates.

Sullivan said leg irons may be used on women in the hospital in case an inmate uses childbirth, or pretends to be in labor, as a way to escape the law's hands.

According to Sullivan, lawmakers and advocates often overlook what a prisoner has done to get incarcerated in the first place.

"I'm all for the rights, for the programs, let's rehabilitate people. But let's not say they're victims," Sullivan said.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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