Content warning: This article includes reports of child abuse and sexual assault.
Last June, several hundred protesters observed the 150-year anniversary of a New Jersey prison for boys known as Jamesburg by gathering at its gates and calling for the facility to finally be shut down. Six months later, outgoing Gov. Chris Christie announced that Jamesburg and another prison for girls would be closing this year.
New Jersey has the nation’s largest racial disparity in youth sentencing: Black youth are 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts.
Retha Onitiri, a juvenile justice campaign manager with the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice, said it was a “miracle” that 300 to 400 people showed up to the protest at Jamesburg last summer. The youth prison is located in a remote area of the state with no public transportation.
“So, people were really able to see what it was like for families who are low-income,” Onitiri said. “They were not able to get out there [and see their children] for years.”
The vast majority of children held at Jamesburg are Black and Brown. New Jersey has the nation’s largest racial disparity in youth sentencing: Black youth are 30 times more likely to be taken from their families and incarcerated than their white counterparts, according to the Sentencing Project.
Jamesburg opened its doors in 1867. Liz Ryan, director of the juvenile justice reform group Youth First, told Truthout that institutions like Jamesburg are the result of juvenile justice models developed at a time when slavery was still legal in this country. Like human bondage, she said, the idea that we can fix social problems by locking children and teenagers up in prison is blatantly outdated.
“That’s how people have to think about this stuff,” she said in an interview.
Christie’s decision to close Jamesburg follows youth prison closings in three other states, including Wisconsin, where fellow Republican Gov. Scott Walker recently announced plans to close a notorious youth prison plagued by a steady stream of allegations of abuse, sexual assault and unlawful use of solitary confinement. In 2015, one boy had his foot slammed in a door by a guard, but supervisors waited two hours before taking him to the hospital to have two toes amputated.
Ryan said the decisions to shut down the prisons are the result of public outcry and grassroots campaigns led by formerly incarcerated youth and their families that have mobilized to reform the juvenile legal system.
Just because governors are shutting down large youth prisons doesn’t mean youth incarceration is coming to an end in their states.
“The demands that communities are making are having an effect,” Ryan said.
Walker was first warned about conditions at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prison complex four years ago, when a judge alerted his office that a prisoner had been sexually assaulted and prison guards failed to provide proper medical care and services, according to local reports. Reports of violence, mismanagement, child neglect and abuse continued to come in. Several lawsuits were filed and the FBI launched a criminal probe before Walker finally decided to shut down the facility last month.
The vast majority of incarcerated youth have not even taken actions that have seriously endangered other people, Ryan explains. Some have educational or mental health needs that are not being met, and others are simply victims of a racist justice system.
“Engaging in delinquent behavior is actually normal adolescent behavior,” Ryan said. “Almost every kid does it and almost every kid ages out … [but] the justice system is much more punitive and harsh to youth of color.”
Reams of research have shown that imprisoning young people is harmful, traumatizing and only increases the chances that they will be incarcerated again later in life. For example, 80 percent of young people released from detention in New Jersey during 2012 have been arrested since, and nearly a third were incarcerated again within three years of release, according to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
Just because governors are shutting down large youth prisons doesn’t mean youth incarceration is coming to an end in their states. In both Wisconsin and New Jersey, smaller, regional “detention centers” and “rehabilitation centers” will replace the large youth prisons.
Some advocates say this is a welcome change because it will be easier for families to stay connected and for staff to focus services on individual children and teenagers — although others point out that “rehabilitation center” is often simply a nicer-sounding word for “prison.”
Many advocates say states must move away from locking kids up, period. Ryan said closing large youth prisons should free up resources to fund community programs that help kids stay out of trouble, as well as alternatives to incarceration that would allow youth to stay at home with their families.
To promote these alternatives and eventually end youth incarceration, Ryan said it’s crucial that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth and their families have “a seat at the table” as policy makers shape the institutions that will replace youth prisons. Jeff Roman, campaign director for Youth Justice Milwaukee, said that’s exactly what is happening in the communities that sent youth to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
“While we think that the discussion to move to smaller facilities is good, we want to make sure the governor is not making smaller versions of Lincoln Hills and Cooper Lake,” Roman told Truthout in an interview.
Gov. Christie’s press release announcing the closure of Jamesburg focuses almost entirely on how much money the move will save the state and fails to acknowledge the pain the prison has caused so many families — most of them Black and Brown — over the years.
Ryan said policy makers must also prevent kids from being incarcerated in the first place by improving access to mental health care, addressing sentencing disparities and supporting efforts to keep police officers out of schools and classrooms.
Unfortunately, Ryan said most policy makers pay little attention to the “horrific conditions” in youth jails and prisons until a child dies behind bars, or a press report or lawsuit reveals that young prisoners have been abused or sexually assaulted. Youth prisons, detention centers and other “secure facilities” continue to operate in most states, and Ryan said politicians must be put under constant pressure to make sure the rest are shut down for good.
“Research alone showing that these places are really horrible isn’t enough to close these places down,” Ryan said. “People have to demand that these places close.”
Indeed, Gov. Christie’s press release announcing the closure of Jamesburg focuses almost entirely on how much money the move will save the state and fails to acknowledge the pain the prison has caused so many families — most of them Black and Brown — over the years.