SOCIAL ISSUES

Why protesters suspect New Jersey plans to build youth prisons

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Protesters locked arms by the hundreds around the old Pabst Blue Ribbon site on Newark’s South Orange Avenue where Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration had planned to build a youth residential treatment facility. The administration insists it was never going to be, as protesters put it, a jail or prison.

“There is no jail coming to South Orange Avenue at the Pabst Blue Ribbon site. That’s not happening,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

That’s how Baraka framed a community meeting that the state attorney general called one Friday night before the locked-arms protest and march. It’s the second time the administration has taken action on the eve of a Social Justice Institute rally.

New Jersey has 11 aging youth residential facilities and three youth prisons, including the 152-year-old Training School for Boys, known as Jamesburg, and scheduled to shut it down. By the stat’s own numbers, the facilities on average are less than half full and it costs $289,000 a year to incarcerate one juvenile. The state plans to spend $160 million to build three new facilities across New Jersey.

At the attorney general’s community meeting, protesters skeptically listened to the Juvenile Justice Commission tout the state’s progress in shrinking juvenile detention and saw its architect’s plans for new facilities based on trauma-informed research that shows designs have an impact on outcomes.

“We’re trying to create the spaces that really help them to recover and to heal,” said Marayca Lopez, corrections analyst and planner at CGL Companies.

But what does that mean for young violent offenders, the ones eventually waved up to adult prisons?

“And let me say just one thing about secure facilities: I wish we didn’t need them,” said New Jersey Attorney General Gubir Grewal. “There’s an unfortunate need for a certain juvenile population, a youth population, because the average age is 18 to 19 for secure care. But, we’re going to do it better. We’re going to do it so that the recidivism rates come down. We’re going to do it so we can rehabilitate young people and put them back to the paths to productive lives.”

The state’s concerns for the most troublesome youth offenders raises questions about the building and design of the new facilities, whether they will have bars and cells and actually become jails. That’s a question NJTV News put to the state.

In a statement, the attorney general’s communications director wrote, “A collaborative process is ongoing. [ …] The design of the proposed new facilities is a work in progress.”

That fuels protesters’ suspicions of prison building.

“It’s sending us backward. We need to be building more opportunities for our students or our children to develop, not to hold them back,” said Edison resident Heru Akhet.

“We’re here to say that these prisons are not helping the kids in any type of way. They’re actually tearing them down and not allowing them to flourish,” said Newark resident Michelle Hunter.

NJTV News asked the state attorney general’s office for any analysis that points to the need for three new facilities. Their response reads, “Many factors were considered when developing a plan based on three sites.”

The state and protesters share the goals of lowering recidivism rates and ending the disproportionate number of black and Latino youth going into the system. But while the state wants to build new, protesters urge modernizing existing facilities and making them more secure.

“What we actually need is for the governor to make real investments in building black and brown kids around prevention, and diversion, and rehabilitation in the same way that he invested $100 million in those ensnared in the opioid crisis around those very things,” said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

Protesters say the state should have considered the optics of bringing its architect to the community meeting.

“That means they already have a good sense of what they’re going to build. So they’re telling people in the community, we’re holding a community meeting to tell you what’s going to happen to you. And what you heard today is folks saying you’re actually not going to do to us anything. We’re going to tell you what we want you to do,” Haygood said.

While protesters and the state disagree on the path forward, one state lawmaker has a bill to slow the process to get answers.

“We need to be conscious of the taxpayer dollar, how we’re spending it, what type of facilities we’re building, who’s monitoring it, right? And we also need to have planning that includes the community,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter.

The state says it plans to build two of the three juvenile facilities in Camden and Mercer Counties. There’s no announced decision for one in Newark or North Jersey, but the attorney general says he’s committed to listening to community stakeholders.