Jail’s roof repair a reminder of N.J.’s stalled reforms on youth incarceration

Taxpayers still on the hook for borrowing made to close prisons that remain open

By: - March 16, 2022 7:09 am

The Trenton Statehouse (Getty Images)

A new roof for a state building is the sort of ho-hum thing most New Jerseyans would ignore. Even New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy didn’t think the roof — for a youth prison in Bordentown — was worth a mention in the $48.9 billion state budget proposal he unveiled last week.

The roof at the Female Secure Care and Intake Facility is one of 31 capital improvement projects, worth a combined $114.5 million, that earned just a paragraph in Murphy’s 101-page budget plan. At $900,000, the plan for the new roof accounts for less than two-thousandths of a percent of the governor’s proposed state spending.

But to juvenile justice reformers, the roof represents failure — failure by the state to close two youth prisons as officials vowed four years ago to do, failure to safeguard taxpayer dollars, and failure to protect Black youth.

“To rebuild or repair a prison that has ineffective outcomes and are pillars of trauma for our young people just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Fred Fogg, the Newark-based national director of violence prevention for Youth Advocate Programs. “Those dollars are a bad investment.”

New Jersey has three youth prisons: the girls’ prison, known as Hayes; the New Jersey Training School for Boys, known as Jamesburg; and the Juvenile Medium Security Facility, another boys’ prison that’s also in Bordentown. Former Gov. Chris Christie announced in 2018 the state would shutter Hayes and Jamesburg — and even borrowed $160 million to do it and rebuild replacements.

Instead, none of that happened, leaving New Jersey taxpayers on the hook to pay the money back — plus $151 million in interest, in payments scheduled until 2047 — with nothing to show for it, at least so far.

Andrea McChristian is the law and policy director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which has pushed the state for years to close all three of its youth prisons. That should be an especially urgent mission for the state, she said, given that New Jersey has the largest black-white youth incarceration gap in the nation, with Black youth 17 times more likely to be detained or committed than white youth.

“We think this is horribly wasteful,” McChristian said. “We were excited about the January 2018 closure announcement of Hayes and Jamesburg. To hear that there’s anything other than plans to close those facilities is moving in the wrong direction, especially in this moment in time, when we had a racial reckoning that really called on New Jersey to make meaningful investments in Black lives.”

She added: “By failing to close these prisons four years later, they’re saying that doesn’t matter. This investment shows they don’t care about Black kids.”

Closures still a go, state says

Plans to close Hayes and Jamesburg and replace them with “smaller regional rehabilitative facilities that are closer to young people’s homes are still active,” said Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) spokeswoman Sharon Lauchaire. She did not provide a timeline, nor details on what the replacements might look like.

Replacing Hayes’ roof is necessary because it leaks, and has exceeded its lifespan, Lauchaire said.

“Until the JJC vacates a building, the JJC is responsible for maintaining the facility and protecting the health and safety of JJC residents and employees,” she said.

The Hayes roof isn’t the only costly fix planned at a state building slated for closure.

Under Murphy’s budget plan, Jamesburg will get $1.1 million to decommission a sewer plant, which the state Department of Environmental Protection has mandated, Lauchaire said.

And the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women is set to get $7 million for repairs, even though Murphy last year announced it would close after an abuse scandal there. Liz Velez, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said a timeline for that closure hasn’t been decided. The state in December hired a consultant to recommend next steps.

The planned closures come as New Jersey’s population of adult and juvenile inmates has plummeted in recent years, part of a trend toward decarceration. Prison census numbers fell even faster during the pandemic, when Murphy implemented an early-release program to curb coronavirus spread behind bars.

With the number of adult inmates half what it was a decade ago, the Department of Corrections has closed or consolidated several adult prisons in recent years, Velez said.

As for the youth prisons, Lauchaire did not explain why the state hasn’t closed them yet, four years after Christie said it would.

Christie intended to replace the closed youth prisons with three new ones in each region of the state. But juvenile justice reformers battled those plans, advocating instead for home-like, repurposed facilities, like old churches or schools, that focus on rehabilitation and allow youth to remain in their community. That model is considered best practice in juvenile justice, McChristian said.

Concerns also arose that closures would result in job losses and that the state’s bond financing agreement requires that the $160 million it borrowed is spent on new construction.

Retha Onitiri, program manager at Salvation and Social Justice, acknowledged the concern about displacing workers.

“But we cannot continue to keep facilities open that are not conducive to our young people and their growth, and are not cost-effective to operate,” Onitiri said. “We urge the state and the governor to come up with a comprehensive, holistic plan to move youth to services and places where they can heal and rehabilitate in their own community, while also looking at workers and helping them move on to the next phase.”

McChristian said the state could retrain workers and place them elsewhere.

“We want to make sure that we’re not upholding a broken youth justice system that perpetuates harmful racial disparities just for jobs,” she said.

A Murphy spokeswoman did not respond to questions about Murphy’s stance on the closures.

The youth prisons operate far under capacity, prompting reformers to question why the state would spend almost a million dollars on Hayes, a 48-bed facility where only five girls now are incarcerated, state data shows.

“I cannot understand and really would need some justification on why you’re going to put a new roof on that building for five girls,” said Onitiri.

The two boys’ prisons can house about 320 youth, but fewer than 100 boys are being held now. Recent state budgets show the facilities operate with a ratio of three to five staff working for each juvenile.

“We have around 100 young people incarcerated, at a cost of almost $500,000 per young person, in youth prisons that are basically empty,” McChristian said.

Fogg thinks New Jersey should follow the lead of states like New York and California, which have moved to close their youth prisons altogether to instead focus on community-based rehabilitative programs for wayward youth. The state’s failure to do so is “definitely discouraging,” Fogg said.

“At the time that it was agreed to close New Jersey’s youth prisons, the numbers of young people incarcerated there were higher than they are now,” Fogg said. “The numbers don’t support the continued existence of these facilities, nor do they support any expansion of these facilities. There should be an intentional, strategic plan to divest from prisons and invest in communities.”

Community-based programs have proven more effective than prisons at rehabilitating youth, he added. About 77% of juveniles released from youth prisons get arrested again, and a quarter get reincarcerated within three years of release, according to state data.

Progress slow

New Jersey has taken steps toward shifting its focus from punishment to prevention and rehabilitation, when it comes to young offenders.

Last summer, the state launched a new two-year, $8.4 million program to fund community-based services aimed at resolving conflicts before they lead to incarceration and healing the childhood traumas that might drive a child to commit a crime or otherwise fall into trouble, like abuse, mental illness, and poverty.

Under that program, “restorative justice hubs” will be set up in Camden, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton, the cities that send the most youth to prison.

Lauchaire said the JJC additionally spends millions annually on community-based programs and services to keep kids out of the criminal justice system. Murphy’s proposed budget includes more than $20 million for such programs that will serve 12,000 to 15,000 youth, she said.

Onitiri applauded such measures, but said closing the youth prisons should be the next step.

“We are very thankful to the governor for investing money in the restorative justice pilot program and in violence-intervention programs,” she said. “Now it’s time to start moving young people out of these prisons that are mostly empty.”

The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice has for years called on the state to invest $100 million in the communities most impacted by youth incarceration.

“What is so tragic is that when we say that $100 million number, people always say, ‘Where are you going to find the money? We don’t have that money.’ Yet at the same time, we’re paying down $300 million on new prisons that haven’t been built,” McChristian said. “That is such a fiscal waste.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.