Advocates rally to shut down youth prisons

Organizers want to close Jamesburg and its counterpart for girls, Hayes in Bordentown.

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

Outside the state training school for boys, also known as Jamesburg, several hundred people rallied to shut the place down.

Organizers say the prison opened its doors 150 years ago today, so it’s a fitting time to end the racial disparity and injustice represented inside.

“What we want to do today is to announce that we are seeking to close this institution which for a century and a half has not served our young people well,” said New Jersey Institute for Social Justice CEO Ryan Haygood.

The rally was organized by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which just put out a report called “Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I A Child?” Haygood has harsh words for today’s large youth prisons like Jamesburg.

“We have learned in the last century and a half that the way New Jersey does youth incarceration is a totally failed experiment. And we want to close Jamesburg and create smaller facilities that are publicly run, that are closer to home, that are developmentally appropriate with wraparound services and familial supports,” Haygood said.

Doesn’t that sound expensive, we asked?

“Money’s not an issue. Right now we’re spending $200,000 per year per kid for incarceration and we’re investing incredible sums of money in a system that’s producing racially discriminatory results. So right now, there are about 250 kids incarcerated in the whole state. And though kids of color and white kids commit crimes at about the same rate, there are only 13 white kids incarcerated in the whole state,” said Haygood.

The report calls youth incarceration a moral stain on New Jersey. It questions whether Jamesburg and its counterpart for girls, Hayes in Bordentown, have any effect on wayward kids.

The most recent numbers, says the report, are 80 percent of youthful offenders are rearrested after their time in state facilities, 68 percent readjudicated or convicted and 33 percent recommitted.

“National best practices show that smaller facilities that are closer to home with wraparound services and trauma-informed care and other concentrated services on these kids actually helps to reduce recidivism and increase public safety,” said Haygood.

The Juvenile Justice Commission, which runs Jamesburg and Hayes, defended the system today, saying, it’s been cited as “national model” by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and is “proud of its progress.”

At the rally, seven clergymen delivers fiery speeches, one saying Jamesburg is symbolic.

“It is symbolic of a lie of this entire system that seeks treatment, care and residential facilities for troubled white children, but retribution, prison bars and $200,000 a year in cyclical revenue as a source on the backs of troubled black kids,” said Rev. Charles Boyer from Bethel AME Church.

They think the state can do better.

“You came here, you know it takes an hour to get here which means that those kids in that facility are totally cutoff, not only from their communities, but from their families. That is a critical element of rehabilitating kids, particularly young kids,” Haygood said.

The passion here was palpable, but getting this youth prison closed after 150 years sounds like a tall order.