Close Youth Prisons Now

There comes a time in society when we become enlightened about something and we know that some previously acceptable practice needs to end.

A few years ago I joined a coalition working to bring an end to solitary confinement. My eyes were opened, through that process, to the fact that it was religious people, believing that being alone for long periods of time with God was redemptive, that created solitary as a prison practice.

The intention was right, but in time the facts revealed that the practice was wrong. Soon after its usage the Quakers (who dreamt up the idea) publicly renounced the practice of solitary confinement, recognizing that being forced into solitude actually led people to ‘lose their minds.’

It was not effective at all for rehabilitation, and it was cruel. We rightly call it torture today. I’m thankful that the legislature in NJ agrees. As governor I will sign into law a bill to end of solitary confinement in NJ.

There are questions that come up when you end a system like solitary. How do you deal with people in prison who cannot be in the general population if you don’t have solitary? New creative answers are stymied as long as a well-funded solitary confinement system exists.

Ending solitary confinement closely resembles ending the incarceration of youth. It must end in order for us to launch a new day of youth corrections.

We have known for a long time that incarcerating children is a bad idea. The developing brain, shaped by prison, is channeled not for beauty but for negativity. Locking kids up doesn’t make them better. In fact, it makes them worse.

In New Jersey we’ve seriously reduced the number of young people in prison—bringing the total down below 300 kids…but we haven’t dismantled the system completely.

In some ways the vestige of youth incarceration looks even crueler than the system looked when more kids were locked inside. Now, more than ever, the racial disparities are striking.

The fact is that white kids and black kids commit crimes at a similar rate—but white kids are offered alternative corrective measures and black, economically disadvantaged kids, go to jail.

As long as we have an expensive prison-complex in place that is funded by incarcerating youth there will be a temptation to fill that system. Right now this system is filled with black and brown bodies and this is unacceptable.

Let’s end youth incarceration now. Surely there will need to be conversations about ‘what’s next,’ —because there are some youth who will need to be in secured settings. But, as long as there is this well-funded, accepted system in place called youth incarceration we won’t really do the work of shaping an alternative.

Shut them down. Shut them all down. With a blank slate maybe we can dream a new alternative for NJ youth.

I hope the other gubernatorial candidates join me in this clarion call for justice.

Peace, Seth Kaper-Dale