Long-Overdue DOC Change Offers a Rare Window of Opportunity
This week, two very important changes in the New Jersey Department of Corrections were announced. Together, they create an opportunity that New Jersey may never see again: to rethink our prison system from an entirely new set of principles and practices.
On Monday, an independent investigation into the January attack on women held at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility (EMCF) detailed a continued failure by DOC leadership to protect women from physical, psychological, and sexual abuse–practices that had been going on for decades and had been documented in previous reports. In response:
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced Monday that EMCF–the only women’s prison in the state–would close. He didn’t include any information on timelines or plans for doing so.
Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks resigned on Tuesday.
Acknowledgement—finally!—of the DOC leadership vacuum and a punitive, abusive culture at EMCF demand much more than cell reassignments. What’s needed is a hard look at the factors that allowed such a culture to exist in the first place and a more comprehensive and holistic approach to criminal justice in New Jersey.
In NJ, African-Americans make up 14% of the general population but comprise 61% of the incarcerated population. African-Americans are incarcerated at 12 times the rate of Caucasians—the highest level of racial disparity in the nation. Racism and caste-ism are built into the culture.
In a study of the life experiences of women prior to incarceration, 86% had suffered physical and/or sexual abuse; studies have shown a correlation between pre-incarceration abuse and further victimization while imprisoned.
The New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice (NJDCJ) estimates that 70 percent of violent crimes result directly from drug activity. Although the number of drug sentences in New Jersey is lower than the national average, cocaine and heroin represent 77 percent of the total charges in the state. In fact, heroin drug sentences are 38 percent higher than all federal sentencing cases. Yet addiction treatment is reaching only a fraction of this population.
New Jersey has made strides in the past decade toward significant justice reforms and reduced the rate of incarceration by 24% between 2006 and 2014. Changes in the administration of parole, sentencing flexibility, practices related to bail, jail time for those awaiting trial, and drug laws have all yielded results. They also indicate a willingness to rethink both the purpose and processes of our criminal justice systems. With new leadership at the DOC level, recently-appointed leadership at the facility level, and the opportunity to redesign the incarceration experience, let’s rebuild with the goals of safety, health, and purpose for those incarcerated as well as impacted families, communities, and DOC staff members.
Building a new culture will require:
Effective leaders willing to take action, be accountable for results, and work to realize a more current and enlightened view of “justice” than the past DOC administration.
New standards and norms regarding hiring, training, managing, and disciplining staff members.
Redesigned policies and procedures regarding individual orientation, conflict management, health and well-being support, education programs, vocational training, and preparation for release.
Significant increases in the availability of psychological counseling and support, particularly therapy for victims of trauma and abuse.
Efforts to connect incarcerated individuals with supportive communities including family, support groups, and peer mentoring
More effective collection and use of data regarding every aspect of incarceration in the state.
From a broader, longer-term perspective, seizing the opportunity may start with redefining the word corrections. When used in the context of criminal justice, “corrections” is usually applied to the behavior of incarcerated individuals. A prison term is seen as an opportunity for a person convicted of a crime to “correct”–or to “be corrected”–so he or she can rejoin society and adapt to its norms.
But what if we recognize that a set of conditions generate each individual’s actions, including those actions that eventually lead to incarceration? It’s the conditions–not the person–that we as a society need to correct. It’s like a person whose car crashes after hitting a rough patch of road that blew out a tire: Do we retrain the driver, replace the car, or fix the road? The safest and least expensive answer is, “Fix the road.” In today’s approach, all we’re doing is taking away the driver’s license and waiting for the next accident. We can change this.
From where we stand–and most of us have been incarcerated or impacted by the criminal justice system–every person arrested for a crime is a demonstration of a failed system: education, housing, job training, health care, mental health treatment, even banking. We are likely to find that a barred cell is only rarely the most effective response to what society calls “criminal behavior.” The tragically misguided “solution” to these failures has been to build more prisons–until now.
The leaders needed for this kind of transformation won’t come from the current corrections industry (and yes, it’s an industry, designed to profit a few at the lifelong expense of many). Let’s transform punitive practices into more restorative actions, and decide on solutions that will work best for the community and for each individual.
Now–right now, Governor Murphy, today, this minute–is the perfect time to start correcting the Corrections system. Closing one prison won’t do much; redesigning our systems from the ground up will transform. Let’s not miss the opportunity: it may not come again.
All of Us or None – Northern NJ is a grassroots organization composed of the currently and formerly incarcerated and their allies. We provide direct services and resources to those housed in and reentering our communities from prisons, jails, and halfway houses. We aim to build a movement led by people who have experienced imprisonment which challenges mass incarceration and the discriminatory treatment of the formerly incarcerated. We are based in Newark, NJ but have members throughout the state.