April 16, 2019
The details are scarce about Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to rehabilitate the juvenile prison system in New Jersey. But if Newark has its way, a new youth jail will not be built in the state’s largest city.
“Over my dead body," Newark West Ward Councilman Joseph McCallum said of the idea that a youth prison could be built on South Orange Avenue, a major artery int he area. “Everybody is ticked off."
According to city officials, the state identified Newark as one of three places to build smaller rehabilitative centers while it considers closing current juvenile correctional facilities. The other two locations were not disclosed.
Mayor Ras Baraka said in a statement the proposed site – vacant land that was home to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer company and is next to a cemetery – is unavailable and impractical.
“A new youth prison in Newark is simply not happening,” Baraka said.
“I support the concept of rehabilitative youth development centers, but existing youth facilities should be renovated for that purpose. Further, New Jersey’s current youth incarceration system is a waste of precious taxpayer dollars, funneling millions each year into largely empty youth prisons.’’
The two largest centers in the state are New Jersey Training School for Boys (also known as Jamesburg) in Monroe Township and the Juvenile Female Secure Care and Intake Facility (also known as Hayes) in Bordentown.
Ryan Haygood, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, led a 2017 campaign that called on the state to close Jamesburg, saying the 150-year-old facility was outdated and not suited to rehabilitate young people.
Last week, he said he asked two things of Murphy: Abandon the idea of building new facilities in New Jersey and allow the youth justice task force he created to explore ways to transform the system. In the state, Haygood said New Jersey has 11 residential juvenile facilities, which are not at capacity, that could be used to house the juvenile population.
“Instead of investing in the building of prisons for kids, Murphy should invest in kids," said Haygood, who is a member of the task force.
When asked about the proposed locations, Murphy’s office released a statement about the governor’s intent.
“Governor Murphy believes deeply in transforming our juvenile justice system to prioritize treatment, rehabilitation, and positive reinforcement for young people," said Deputy Press Secretary Alexandra Altman.
“The Administration seeks to balance public safety with the potential closure of existing facilities and opening of smaller regional sites to allow young people the ability to be close to their families and home communities.”
Before former Gov. Christopher Christie left office, he announced plans to close Jamesburg and Hayes. In their place, the state proposed to build smaller rehabilitation centers in Ewing and Winslow township with a $162 million bond. Looks like Murphy is following suit.
In Haygood’s report - “Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I a Child?”- the institute found that disproportionately 90 percent of black and Latino children return to the facility within three years of release. The report also found that New Jersey has the highest racial disparity of incarceration in the country, meaning that a black kid is 30 more times likely to be imprisoned than a white kid in the state, even though they both commit crime at the same rate.
In October, Murphy created the youth justice task force that is supposed to study the juvenile justice system and make recommendations next year.
But after its first meeting last month, Haygood said the Attorney General’s Office, which oversees the Juvenile Justice Commission, the agency governing youth correctional facilities, came up with the three sites.
Haygood’s group, which has worked with state on the issue, also has recommended smaller cottage-like facilities that focus on treatment, mental health services, counseling and education.
The state has previously explained that jails are not at capacity because of work by the Juvenile Justice Commission. Since 2004, New Jersey has been recognized nationally for reducing the number of incarcerated youth and using community-based alternatives to detention.
Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), who is a former West Ward councilman, said he is setting up a meeting with the governor’s office to talk about the issue.
“The location doesn’t make sense," Rice said. “What you want is a business that is going to facilitate revenue."
Three schools, including West Side High School, are on South Orange Avenue and not far from the site. And, the proposed location is adjacent to a cemetery, subliminal imagery that’s not healthy for young people in a challenged community, opponents say.
“My kids already have this uphill battle," said West Side High School Principal Akbar Cook. “All they see is death and now they’re going to see jail. What are you trying to tell my babies?"
McCallum said his ward is making a comeback and interest from developers has been increasing over the past five years. A youth correctional facility would hinder that progress.
“We’re trying to build a community," he said. “We’re doing it from the ground floor."