The campaign to close one of New Jersey’s most infamous juvenile detention centers was marked with a rally earlier this week, outside the gateway to a facility that many say is the beginning of the state’s school to prison pipeline.
"It’s pretty much like a house of horrors, from the abuse from the guards, to the lack of medical attention, to the lack of educational programming, it was literally hell on earth.”
Eric Kussman, now 37 years old, spent two years as a teenager inside New Jersey’s largest juvenile corrections center, the New Jersey training school for boys formerly known as Jamesburg. Kussman is one of nearly two hundred people rallying outside the Monroe township facility calling for it’s permanent closure. Kussman says the facility is just one of many in a system that is setting kids up for failure.
“When they have this mark of Cane, as we like to call it and being stigmatized as being criminal, they cant get jobs, they cant finish their high school education, and it leads them to the streets, especially if they’re coming from broken families, we do nothing to prepare them for society.”
Jamesburg first opened its doors on June 28 1867 exactly 150 years ago, something Ryan Haygood President and CEO of The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice says is no coincidence. Haygood says 73 percent of juveniles behind bars throughout the state are children of color, proof that the system is still plagued by racial disparities that have clear historical significance.
“The country fought a war over the end of slavery, or to preserve slavery, two years after that war ends Jamesburg opens. New jersey was a state that often gets false credit for being a progressive state, it was slave holding state it was one of the last states to ratify the 15th amendment, and it was state in which the youth prisons open two years after the civil war ends.”
Haygood says research clearly shows that youth incarceration leads to a range of negative consequences including trauma, recidivism, homelessness, and poverty, adding that it is that very research that is leading to changes in policy around youth incarceration that can be seen throughout the country.
“Missouri’s a very good model where they closed some of their youth facilities they created smaller facilities that are closer to home, that are developmentally appropriate, so here if we close Jamesburg we can create smaller facilities in southern, central, and northern New jersey to accommodate a smaller population that could really rehabilitate them. We’re spending two hundred thousand dollars a year per kid per year of incarceration, image what you could do by investing that money in kids in a different direction, toward their rehabilitation toward making them whole.”
Kevin Brown, executive director of the state Juvenile Justice Commission, defends the work being done saying his agency runs successful programs that help young offenders. 47-year-old William Latimore spent six years inside the Jamesburg facility.
"It’s a prison for kids an actual prison its not a youth correctional facility, or a state home for boys, this is prison.”
Latimore was sent to Jamesburg following a string of petty theft crimes at the age of 14. Latimore recalls the abuses he often faced at the hands of the staff
“If you were unsavory they had a system that they could heat up the floors where you couldn’t even put your feet on the floor, literally they had pipes under the floors that they’d turn the pipes up so high you couldn’t even get off your bed to eat.”
Jamesburg was among 13 facilities nationwide identified in a 2010 federal report by the department of justice as having high rates of juveniles subjected to abuse particularly sexual abuse. Latimore says the abuses and lack of real rehabilitation are what have motivated him to join the fight.
“I know that in order for the children to get a better chance stuff like this has to be shut down, it has to be it has to be, there’s no question, it has to be shut down, and I have to get on the ground with this and help it get done.”
The more than two hundred demonstrators including more than 40 community organizations like the ACLU and tee NAACP share that same sentiment.