NEWARK, NJ - When 15-year-old Jabari Dodson heard that a new youth prison may be built just a few blocks away from West Side High School in his city, he was shocked.

“I was livid,” said Dodson, who attends University High School. “It really shocked me that they want to build new prisons for children. That would mess up a lot of things. That's horrible.”

Dodson was one of the hundreds who locked arms during a rally Saturday at the site of the former Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery. It is there that the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which organized the rally, says the state planned to build a new youth prison.

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Under former Gov. Chris Christie, two outdated youth prisons - Jamesburg and Hayes - were slated to shut down. The Christie administration at the time proposed to build three new regional youth facilities as the old ones shuttered, giving families more accessibility to their children.

Today, Jamesburg and Hayes still remain open. The institute wants Gov. Phil Murphy to close those. It also doesn’t want to see any new youth jails or rehabilitation centers open since existing ones are operating under capacity.

But Gov. Phil Murphy said in a joint statement with Mayor Ras Barak last month that a new secure youth residential center would be built somewhere in North Jersey. Baraka later clarified his stance and stated that no money should be spent on new jails or rehabilitation centers.

New Jersey Institute for Social Justice President and CEO Ryan Haygood said residents were frustrated since the plan to build in the West Ward was hatched “under the cover of darkness.” Haygood said he learned of the idea because he is on the governor’s Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice.

“Even before we went with this publicly, we encouraged Governor Murphy - listen this would be a bad look,” Haygood said. “If you move forward with your plan to build a youth prison on that site, the community will explode. And he sat on that - he sat on that - and they exploded.”

TAPinto Newark previously reported that the North Jersey site under Christie was originally slated for Woodbridge, but the township bought the site from the state. Christie would go on to announce that $162 million in bonds would finance only two - not three -- new youth facilities in south and central New Jersey.

Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, of the Bethel AME Church in Woodbury, spoke at West Side High School before thes rally. He thought that with Murphy in office, change would come.

“Surely, this incoming governor who received 94 percent of the black vote would never follow through with plans to build new prisons for our kids,” he said.

State Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic) also plugged a bill she sponsored that would prohibit juveniles after June 2020 from going to Jamesburg or Hayes. The bill would also appropriate $100 million annually to the Juvenile Justice Commission, which was created in 1995 to reform the youth criminal justice system. 

The legislation was introduced on May 16 in the state Assembly. 

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