By David Cruz
Remembering where the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center was less than a decade ago, you could understand why officials there are celebrating today after receiving the Facility of the Year Award from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
“If we think about the history of this place – oftentimes when people were talking about the demise of detention facilities – they would use a stock photo image of this place,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who is also the county executive’s deputy chief of staff.
After years of overcrowding in sub-standard housing and violence, the facility came under federal monitoring and stayed that way for 21 years. But since 2008 officials say they have upgraded services to include new housing, six hours of daily education, including a GED program, which 20 residents have completed this term, and 24-hour healthcare services.
“If it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and they’re sick and they need to come downstairs, there is medical staff on hand to treat them,” said Sandra James, Health Services Administrator of the Juvenile Detention Center. “24 hours a day, a nurse is there all the time.”
The residents here, aged 14-18, have a doctor on hand 20 hours a week, a dentist twice a week, 16 hours a week of psychiatric services, 2 full-time social workers and a psychologist.
“It gives them a chance,” said center director Charles Green. “The healthcare he wasn’t receiving out there in the community, the education he wasn’t able to receive, now he’s able to receive an education, possibly receive a high school diploma, go to college. I forgot to tell you, we offer college credits here in this facility.”
The center has 14 classrooms, said Counselor Eleanor Alcott Parker. “The experience we try to make is as normal as possible for these children,” she said. “In here, a lot of them have not been in school on the outside but we create a situation where they learn to love education and love learning again.”
County Executive Joe DiVincenzo said the facility – built to house 242 residents – is about three-quarters full right now. That includes close to 30 residents from Passaic County, which has closed its juvenile detention facility. DiVincenzo says Essex is reaching out to other surrounding counties to take on their youth center populations.
“We know we can do the job here. We want to make sure it’s a job we can handle and I want to make sure we talk to the professionals,” he said, “but we still have room here where we can bring in income and I believe we can do a better job than what other counties are doing right now.”
The extra kids means millions – five million a year, in fact – for Essex county coffers, said the county executive, making the detention center good business for taxpayers, he said.
After more than two decades under federal monitoring, officials say this facility has made a complete turnaround and is now a model for youth services and rehabilitation, with a national award to prove it.