In New Jersey, it’s a fight between the DOE and teachers: Teachers Are Poised to Win!

Several weeks ago, my sister and I had a rather uncomfortable conversation with our mother about her return to school in the September. Leading up to it, the state had been adamant that students be in the classrooms learning—even in the middle of a pandemic. Jersey City and other schools seemed poised to bring my mother and other teachers back into overcrowded and severely underfunded buildings with no safety protocol and no clean water. So, we had the conversation

I should not have to have a conversation about what we should do, as her daughters, if my mother got sick. Does she want to be resuscitated or put on life support if she is deteriorating? How long does she want to be on a ventilator if her lungs get that bad? Has she got her will in order? She didn’t sign anything from the school district, did she?

We had this conversation because we knew that social distancing cannot take place in a school where my mother teaches nearly thirty students a day. Kids would not have been required to wear masks, but mother would have had to. They needed to be six feet apart. Can rooms handle thirty kids separated by six feet? Or what about if the classroom was split, and fifteen students attended in the early morning and fifteen attended in the afternoon? Teachers would still be interacting with 30 students, possibly spreading COVID to students from the first half of the day to the other. 

The absurdity of the school district for going through hoops to try and open cannot be ignored. Parents in poverty who cannot afford to keep their children home because they have work will be forced to risk their children’s health while parents in the increasingly gentrified city can. The demand to bring students back is only a demand to return their parents to exploitative work without policies in place that would have helped those families to begin with. New Jersey is the fifth wealthiest state in the country. In certain neighborhoods of Jersey City alone (Liberty Park), the median income level for residents is $139,750; 2.54x times the national median. We could have funneled the wealth of our state into funds that New Jerseyans could have used to stay home with their children: universal basic income, cancelling rents and mortgages, and funding mutual aid programs for those in need; we could have thoroughly cleaned and updated old school buildings and taken over electrical grids to give people power and free internet access. I bet, we could even have created a model of universal healthcare so that residents didn’t fear going to the doctor if they exhibited the symptoms of COVID, or the hospital if it were too severe. Instead, we did the bare minimum and are angered when people want to demand that they have to go back to work—and then blamed everything on the people who were getting an extra six hundred dollars from unemployment, even if they were laid off. And we’ve asked the business in the state to foot the bill, as philanthropic. I wonder how much tax write-offs they’ll get. 

I heard Bon Jovi opened a third Soul Kitchen in the state. Well, Bon Jovi wouldn’t have had to open a third soup kitchen if we taxed Bon Jovi relative to his income and spent that money on creating policies that address food insecurity. 

I watched as Senator Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat that helped shape Christie’s tax breaks during his administration while demonizing teachers for asking too much from the state, being hailed as a hero of New Jersey Public Schools during the pandemic. Was this the same man? Yes. But his collective amnesia is striking given everything he did to make sure the schools didn’t have what they needed to face this crisis. What a hero. 

I, as I’m sure many children of teachers are doing right now, am watching in horror as the fears of the faculty and students are consistently being ignored for the rush to return to school. The push to have in person classes, the desire to go back to normal. And this is not just the great state of New Jersey, which has worked hard in being one of the very few states to limit the amount of exposure to COVID on their citizens (though our rate of transmission is on the rise yet again). This is everywhere: from New York City, to Los Angeles and Chicago. 

And while city council’s and politicians demand schools reopen, teachers won’t go down without a fight. 

The most militant organizing is coming from the teachers and their unions over the safe return to the classroom. In New York, teachers brought coffins and a guillotine to the NYC DOE in protest to the city’s reopening plan. Educators and parents were appalled by De Blasio’s insistence that it was safe the open the country’s biggest school system amid the pandemic. 

In Chicago, Mayor Lightfoot and the Chicago Public Schools announced the decision to begin the school year with fully-remote learning, with the tentative goal to get students, “back to class, at least part-time by November.” The decision was, maybe not so coincidentally, came as the possibility of a possible strike vote from the Chicago Teachers Union began and as COVID-19 cases in Chicago trended upwards. 

These trends of teachers’ organizing is not an anomaly, it has created a storm. What I have been arguing with my mother is the fact that she—and her fellow teachers—have power in the union and the decision to keep her students and herself safe. Educators have always understood that the withholding of their labor can create positive changes in their lives and the lives of their students. Now their turning their power on making sure children in low income areas remain safe and healthy, with no risk of getting sick:

In New York City, parents, students, and teachers will be marching from their union headquarters down to the Department of Education. In Los Angeles, activists are organizing a car caravan, first outside the LA Chamber of Commerce and then around the Los Angeles Unified School District building. “We’re kicking it off at the LA Chamber because even during Covid, this is a time when a lot of corporations and Wall Street are making record-breaking profits,” explained Sylvana Uribe, a spokesperson for Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a progressive group participating in the protest. In Philadelphia and Baltimore, teacher unions are calling on Comcast to improve the quality of its service and make it more affordable for families. In Phoenix, activists are planning to demonstrate outside their state capitol building, where educators can write letters to their elected officials about how they feel going back to school or, if they want, write their imagined obituaries.

Immediately after the stirrings from teachers unions across the country, the superintendent in Jersey City voted on August 6, 2020, to move to remote learning for the month of September; I am relieved that my mother will not have to face her potential mortality for her job. And I wonder if it is because we’ve woken a giant in red that the superintendent even backed down. 

Teachers and their unions are waking up and ruffling their feathers, ready for a fight. And this is a fight that educators are poised to win. After all, it is between life and death; why should students and educators die for Trump and DeVos? 

(Photo Credit 1: NY Post / Dan Herrick) (Photo Credit 2: Al Jazeera)

In New Jersey, Incarcerated Pregnant Women’s Lives Don’t Matter

In New Jersey, a liberal government is grappling with its own sense of cruelty against incarcerated women. A suit filed in the US District Court for New Jersey claims that officers shackled the ankle of a 30-year-old woman identified as Jane Doe to her hospital bed while she was in labor. She was forced to wear the shackles even while she experienced painful contractions, kept her from turning on her side or moving at all to relieve the pain and—when nurses questioned the need for the shackles—officers refused to remove them and remained in the room even while doctors performed invasive medical procedures. She continued to be restrained while recovering from an emergency C-section and was also not allowed to walk the hallways as part of the healing process. 

The use of shackles during childbirth was banned in the state as far back as 2017. Yet, as Jane Doe was sent to jail on a probation violation in 2018 after relapsing, she was shackled during childbirth, and afterwards. 

The process of shackling, not only de-humanizing, takes a mental toll on women. In a 2017 report from the American Psychological Association, “Women subjected to restraint during childbirth report severe mental distress, depression, anguish, and trauma.” Women who are incarcerated tend to already have suffered more childhood traumas and shackling them during childbirth is likely to make conditions such as PTSD worse. 

New Jersey, in the wake of Christie, has worked to make progressive reform to address the growing number of women who are incarcerated, including the issues related to shackling pregnant women while receiving medical care, but these bills fall short on the issues that are created from the process of criminalization to begin with. Jane Doe would not have had to file a lawsuit to allege an illegal shackling had she not been arrested to begin with. She, along with many New Jersey women, are part of a vicious cycle of recidivism where they will constantly be in contact with the criminal justice system. 95 percent of people incarcerated in state prison will be released, but 76.6 percent of them will be rearrested within five years. And in New Jersey, it will cost more to keep these people in prison that it would to give them the help that they need, whether it be financial help, drug rehabilitation, mental health access, etc. (each person in incarceration costs the state $60,000 a year). 

Even the bills proposed by the state, while valiant in their efforts to address the crisis, only do so much as to alleviate the symptoms that are caused by incarceration. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle of Bergen County, proposed legislation to prohibit the use of restraints on pregnant incarcerated people during labor and immediately after childbirth, only in cases where the woman (who is in active labor, mind you), presents a substantial flight risk or some other “extraordinary medical or security circumstance dictates that restraints are needed to ensure the safety and security of the prisoner, the employees of the facility or medical facility, other prisoners, or the public”. Again, the extenuating circumstances are loopholes so that women, in active and painful labor, are still restrained during labor. I wonder at what point we’re going to acknowledge that women will not attempt to flee when they can barely stand. 

Other bills have attempted to show that same compassion to incarcerated women, the fastest growing population in the criminal justice system, while reminding those women that they still are prisoners and are only given crumbs at the benevolence of the state at large. 

The Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act, would ensure all incarcerated women in New Jersey receive free feminine hygiene products, expressly ban shackling and eliminate solitary confinement for expectant mothers. The bill would expand visiting hours and free phone calls for incarcerated mothers and would create a pilot program allowing overnight visits for mother who are able to meet certain requirements so that they can bond with their newborns.

While we should applause some compassion for incarcerated women, and incarcerated mothers, we need to keep fighting for a day where we meet a pregnant woman who has relapsed with compassion and public health solutions and not arrest or jail. 

The Black Lives Matter Movement has brought to the surface a longstanding dehumanization of people at the hands of the criminal justice system; those officers didn’t care that Jane Doe was in active labor or recovering from a C-section. To the police, Jane Doe was another inmate that deserved to be handcuffed because she was outside of the prison walls, just like any other officer would do to an “inmate”. 

Defunding the police means defunding the prisons means abolishing the prisons that house these women. $60,000 per incarcerated persons can correspond trauma informed therapists and love and safety. 

Can we reimagine what $60,000 per incarcerated individual in the state of New Jersey (there are 39,000 people in various correctional facilities in the state alone)? Can we think about the various ways we can help those people instead of locking them up and subjecting them to a life of imprisonment and dehumanization? Can we literally comprehend how much help $2,340,000,000 (more than $2 billion!) can buy us? Can we imagine a day where there will be no more Jane Does? Where the lives of incarcerated pregnant women matter? 

(Image Credit 1: The Guardian / Molly Crabapple) (Photo Credit: Facebook / Stop Shackling Pregnant Women) (Image Credit 2: Prison Policy Initiative)

New Jersey Demanded Its Counties End Their 287(g) Agreements. Three of Them Are Suing the State Instead

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal

Monmouth, Ocean, and Cape May Counties are suing the state of New Jersey over the Attorney General’s Directive, which placed limits on the amount of aid local law enforcements could use when cooperating with immigration authorities.

Titled the “Immigrant Trust Directive,” the policy put into place by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal most recently blocked Monmouth County from participating in a federal program that trains corrections officers to determine the immigration status of jail inmates and then flags them for federal action. An earlier state directive, handed down in September, seeks to prohibit the sheriff’s departments in Monmouth and Cape May Counties from continuing the 287g agreement that has allowed some of their officers to act as immigration agents in county jails. Monmouth and Cape May Counties both renewed for a decade despite Grewal’s directive. 

Angered over the fact that they can’t jail and hold people for ICE to deport them, the counties are moving towards suing the state to continue. It begs the question how much money does ICE give to allow constitutional rights to be revoked for undocumented individuals living in New Jersey? 

The Directive’s goal, according to Grewal, “is clear—to make it easier for New Jersey’s law enforcement officers to solve crimes and ensure the safety of all 9 million people in our state by building trust with our large and diverse immigrant communities. Because of the bright line between New Jersey law enforcement officers and federal civil immigration agents, immigrants can come forward as victims and witnesses of crimes without fear of reprisal.”

Monmouth County is arguing that it is unprecedented that state officials supersede federal law, as the AG’s directive runs counter to federal Department of Justice guidance. “We wanted someone in here to make sure Monmouth County is protected and do the right thing,” Freeholder Director Tom Arnone argued, “We have never had a period of time when the (New Jersey) attorney general has made a ruling over the DOJ. Right or wrong, we are obligated to do our due diligence.”

Not surprisingly, the arguments fall back onto a rhetoric of keep citizens safer, blaming the recent bail reform in place for possibly pushing out violent offenders that could otherwise be picked up by ICE. 

While state politicians and some residents claim that the agreements keep the Monmouth County residents safe, others are against continued cooperation. The idea that immigrants commit more violent crimes has proven time and again to be false, dredged up for the purpose of justifying ICE’s cruelty and encroachment of civil liberties. Increasingly, minor misdemeanors that would land a citizen with a ticket and an uncomfortable day at court are being used as justification to deport large populations in immigrant communities, both in the state and beyond. 

It is hypocritical that those counties, who proudly harken to their Italian, Irish and immigrant roots at the drop of a hat, would whoop and holler for the ability to throw those whose histories aligned with our own in prison indefinitely. Fleeing violence, economic hardship, and increasing poverty, they’ve come into this country – and this state – to make a better life for themselves.

Our families fled from the same. Fleeing economic hardships, famine, rising fascist governments and violence, they came to this country to make a better life. Now, in the face of Libertas, we’ve spit on them as violent offenders and gleefully watch them being separated from their families and loved ones. 

Have we no shame?

Never Again Action, Elizabeth, New Jersey, June 2019

(Photo Credit 1: Tariq Zehawi / Asbury Park Press) (Photo Credit 2: Facebook / Never Again Action)

Stop championing New Jersey as progressive: State and local politics are still a catastrophe

The state of New Jersey sure is getting a lot of hype to it; I haven’t been able to look at news articles about the state without some praise from progressive media about the great things New Jersey is accomplishing, now that Christie got the boot and Murphy got the in. There’s the minimum wage hike (which won’t go into effect until 2024); bills are being pushed to legalize marijuana (which stalled because of the lack of votes, despite being voted on multiple times during the Christie era); condemnation of Kavanaugh and the sexual violence against women from men in power (despite the fact that the same thing has happened in the Murphy Administration). The country only sees the great things that the state is doing from the headlines; read between the lines and you will see the way local and state politics have been marred by a toxic combination of conservativism, neoliberalism, and progressive political theater. 

New Jersey is about progressive as Joe Biden. A heartening meme but with some creepy undertones that no one wants near them. New Jersey is about as progressive as Cory Booker, who at once talks about not accepting corporate PAC money but then has a fundraiser at $28,000 per donor that ensures each donor a picture with Booker and Murphy, and dinner, and is hosted by Bon Jovi. New Jersey is the high and mighty condemnation of offshore drilling on our oceans while it being ok for a pipeline to be built in the Meadowlands. If I have twenty dollars for every time a progressive news outlet lauded the great choices of the Garden State, I still wouldn’t be able to live there because the property taxes are too high and the Democrats in office would rather pull money from public employees before passing a Millionaire’s Taxon the super wealthy individuals in the state.

In my home county, a judge whose father was a senator is only threatened with suspension, despite asking a domestic violence survivor whether she kept her legs closed to prevent her partner from raping her and then denyied her restraining order because he thought she wasn’t telling the truth. Essex County still won’t end a contract with ICE, citing safety concerns for the people they detain, while still making seven million dollars a month from holding them for ICE. 

Cops keeping beating people, and we know cops are pigs (and really actively acknowledge that—“Lakehurst cops are shit; cops gotta fill a quota at the end of the month; no, no, no, Manchester cops are worse”), but the moment a black boy or girl is shot, all I hear is Blue Lives Matter from the same people that call those in Blue assholes.

I have never been more sick and tired of hearing about the great Phil Murphy, even though I was optimistic that the administration won (because at least it wasn’t Kim Guadagno and her Christie taint). But now somehow the progressive policies that were championed in that era are suddenly too…too extreme or revolutionary now that Democrats are crawling towards a super majority in the state legislature. 

We should have had a living wage almost immediately, because small businesses aren’t a thing anymore in the state and Barnabas Health and Wakefern (all the Shoprite supermarket chains in the state and their warehouses and commissaries) are the state’s largest employers. If we really care about the environment in the state of New Jersey, all pipelines should be banned from being built and subsidized solar panels should be available to all residents so we can finally faze out electric companies. We should have not just lip service about affordable housing and lament on the cost of living in the state, but also clear-cut housing first and affordable housing options. And raise taxes on the wealthy in the state! I am sick and tired of passing by Deal on Route 71 and seeing mansions and knowing that those aren’t even primary houses but just summer homes!

We should be legalizing marijuana, no if, ands or buts and then expunge those who have been arrested and charged with marijuana charges, demand reparations for them, and help them create a business for those people instead of watching large corporations bank on the legalization of marijuana. 

I’m running for Governor in the Great State of New Jersey, because anyone knows the suffering of the people is inherently tied to the economic redistribution of wealth between the two classes of residents (a gap which is widening), it’s a Jersey girl who’s had to deal with the threat of foreclosure, late phone bills and electricity being turned off; it’s Sandy and then the giant snowstorm afterward that almost knocked a tree into her family’s run down house. It’s a girl who’d rather make sure that the employees in retail can live in the state (because she herself wouldn’t have been able to live in the state) instead of those poor millionaires who might have to leave their first and second homes if we raise their taxes. And when progressive news outlets put me on a title of their great next piece, it will be because of actual progressive policies that don’t have the stink of neoliberalism about it. 

(Photo Credit 1: PBS / Reuters / Eduardo Munoz) (Photo Credit 2: LSE US Centre)

It’s time to talk about mental illness and police brutality

Andrew Casciano

It was only supposed to be a simple call. Police in Paterson, NJ, were assisting in a phone call for a suicide attempt, and had met the victim at the St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson, a little over a year ago. Later, as video emerged from the two police officers’ own recorded video, the victim was beaten and slapped by those officers—Ruben McAusland and Roger Then. The first footage shows the victim—Andrew Casciano—being slapped by McAusland in the waiting room of the emergency room as he is wheeled in.

The second footage, shot by Then with a shiteating grin on his face before the assault took place, shows McAusland reacting violently to a suicidal patient’s comments, slapping the man hard enough—twice—for blood to splatter on the bedsheets.

I have members of my family that work in behavioral health units. Under no circumstances are they to even consider touching a mentally ill patient unless they pose a direct and violent threat to the nursing staff or to themselves. There is extensive training to spot those risks. Casciano was laying in a hospital bed. His only weapon? A box of latex gloves that he threw at an officer. McAusland abused his authority and punched a man who, for all intents and purposes, was attempting to goad the police into killing him.

But the violence that McAusland and Then inflicted on Casciano is only part of the charges that have been leveled against them and four other Paterson police officers, including assault, dealing drugs and an attempted coverup. McAusland pleaded guilty to “possession and distribution of heroin, cocaine and marijuana—all of which he said he stole from a crime scene while he was on duty—and to depriving Casciano of his civil rights by assaulting him in prison.” McAusland was sentenced to 5 ½ years in prison. Then, who blamed the assault on McAusland, was sentenced to six months after pleading guilty to concealing the civil rights violation.  

The videos go a long way in illustrating the ways police officers abuse and violate the trust of the community in Paterson. They are also indicative of the ways in which the police and the entire criminal justice system are inherently abusive. 

Mentally ill individuals have not often been highlighted in police brutality; they are always considered an afterthought. Is it because we don’t legitimately view mental illnesses as real illnesses that could have devastating effects on people’s interactions with police? People with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter that other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement.

According to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, though individuals with untreated mental illnesses number only 1 in 50 US adults, they are involved with at least 1 in 4, and as many as half of all fatal police shootings. According to the co-author of the study, executive director John Snook, “By dismantling the mental illness treatment system, we have turned mental health crisis from a medical issue into a police matter. This is patently unfair, illogical and is proving harmful both to the individual in desperate need of care and the officer who is forced to respond.” 

I have had two very uncomfortable encounters with the police, both when I’ve been in the midst of panic attacks. The two officers ranged from casual indifference to outright belligerent rudeness. I did not feel safe in the company of those individuals. You can blame the lack of training the police officers have with mentally ill individuals; but it also highlights how policing is consistently and diametrically opposed to any kind of public safety or community safety, and that needs to end. 

(Photo Credit: Paterson Times)

No one is free until we are all free!

Children are dying at detention centers on the border. ICE detention centers, which line the pockets of counties like Essex, New Jersey, with millions of dollars each month, have been reported with disgusting health and safety code violations, violating the cushy contracts. Undocumented immigrants in detention at the border have finally won their right to continue protesting with hunger strikes without the fear of nasal tube force feedings. In New Jersey, a Guatemalan toddler died in a state hospital, after being detained by ICE.  Her 104-degree fever was ignored before she was reunited with her family in the Garden State. a record number of babies are in detention, raising concerns about the children’s health and wellbeing; and the list goes on and on. 

We have reached a crisis moment in the United States when we can ignore the violence and the othering of people, denying them their humanity and justifying carceral violence as a penalty of illegality. Babies and children should not be in detention. Women fleeing violence should not be incarcerated; people should not be put behind bars.  

The bubbling incarceration rates of all people in this country, the ties to private prisons that give stockholders millions or billions for putting people behind bars for nonviolent crimes, drug crimes, crimes of self-defense, tickets, misdemeanors, children incarceration: all of this should not be. The crime of being poor and being black or being brown should not be. The lists of should-not-be are endless.

We have more in common with undocumented immigrants in our community, working hard to raise and provide for their families each day, than we do with the billionaires sitting in the oval office and the capitol buildings. We have more in common with the incarcerated than we do with Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Betsy Devos. We have more in common with the impoverished and homeless than we do with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The threat of homelessness looms over many in this country, including those who claim to be members of the middle class. I have known the certified letters from mortgage companies, threatening foreclosure and homelessness. Many can relate to earning the bare minimum and working until our bodies have deteriorated. For someone whose entire political career involves an obscene amount of “executive time”, he does not understand the calloused fingers and sore feet of working twelve, fifteen hour shifts and then waking up the next morning to do it again. 

We will not become a nation for the people, until we understand that we are all together, all people, all humans, deserving of dignity and humanity, and that we deserve not bars but homes and healthcare, rehabilitation and not violence and felony charges. Prisons give those in power the ability to de-humanize and then justify no one deserving basic human rights: why should the criminal get healthcare when you work for it; why is Narcan for the drug addict free but my medication prices will kill me?

When you realize that the politicians won’t save you, but your common man and women will, then one must organize to demand an end to the inequality and inhumanity in this country and the world. To begin, we must destroy the prison industrial complex.

(Photo Credit: Dialectical Delinquents)

A New Jersey probation officer is arrested for assaulting a child in his charge: Why are local news making her seem older?

A state probation officer from Wall, New Jersey has been charged with sexual assault of a probationer under his supervision. The officer, Henry C. Cirignano is facing two counts of second-degree sexual assault, one for, “allegedly coercing the victim and the other related to his position of power over the victim as her probation officer.” Cirignano has been suspended with his access to court facilities revoked.

Though early in the investigation, that Cirignanohas not been terminated from his high-paying position ($88,266 per year) is telling for how the state of New Jersey is willing to compromise to protect the accused child molester. Consistently the survivor is called a “woman” even though, according to the official misconduct charges from Monmouth County, Cirignano’s conviction would subject him to provisions of Megan’s Law:

“If convicted of Official Misconduct, Cirignano faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in a New Jersey state prison without parole and a lifetime ban on public employment in the State of New Jersey.

“If convicted of Sexual Assault, Cirignano faces up to 10 years in a New Jersey State prison on each county, subject to the provisions of the ‘No Early Release Act’ (NERA) requiring him to serve 85 percent of the sentence imposed before becoming eligible for release on parole. He would also be subject to the provisions of ‘Megan’s Law’ and Parole Supervision for Life requiring a minimum of 15 years of parole supervision following his release from prison.”

The Megan’s Lawsex offender registration was signed into law in 1994 in New Jersey, after 7-year-old Megan Kanka went missing from her home in Hamilton Township, having been kidnapped, raped and murdered by sex offender Jesse Timmendequas. Her body had been located nearby less than 24 hours later. Megan’s Law requires communities to be notified when sex offenders move into their neighborhoods. 

That bit of information in the press proves two problems with how New Jersey incarcerates and monitors youth; and then how those youths are portrayed when people in positions of power use said power to abuse them. 

In New Jersey, despite the decline of in care facilities, 274 youths are currently committed to those facilities. Most youths are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses; the second reason youth are in juvenile justice is parole violations. 

According to the Urban Institute, New Jersey disproportionately incarcerates Black youths over White youths; despite being only 14 percent of the youth population, Black youths make up 73 percent of those committed to secure juvenile facilities. Even more nefarious, after release, those youths are supervised constantly by the state either through probation or aftercare treatments. The Garden State is a high spender on making sure youths are incarcerated and under control.

Second, when probations officers are accused of abusing their positions of power, news and press outlets, including press releases from the county itself, look to hide the extent of the abuse. Cirignano’s abuse would have been terrible because he sexually assaulted someone he could send back to prison if they had fought back. The person he was monitoring and abusing was a child, who could have easily been sent back to juvenile corrections. Given the population and problem of youth in incarceration, media outlets and the state have decided that children in New Jersey, children who might be in need of mental health services or actually care and consideration, are not allowed to be children.  

(Infographic Credit: Urban Institute)

Ending solitary confinement, the problem that doesn’t “exist” in New Jersey

Nafeesah Goldsmith

Nafeesah Goldsmith is a community organizer with the nonprofit organization Jersey City Together. She graduated Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree and is working towards a Master’s in Criminal Justice at Monmouth University. She has been working to curtail the practice of solitary confinement in New Jersey, as she has had first hand experience of its abuse. For nearly 13 years, Nafeesah Goldsmith was incarcerated for at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility and was forced to spend nearly 60 days in solitary confinement—in the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, a male inmate facility since Edna Mahan did not have its own isolation ward (now, it does).

There Goldsmith spent two months of isolation, “with the exception of 45 minutes of recreation time, most days, in the prison yard. She said she sometimes went without showering, depending on the mood of the guards. To pass the time she spoke with isolated prisoners through the vents and the toilet, sometimes playing a makeshift version of hangman.” 

For inmates in segregation, the most traumatizing aspect is the dehumanizing treatment they face while in solitary confinement. Goldsmith is still reminded of the anguished cries from the other solitary cells: “You hear nothing but screams and it’s loud and there’s banging. You have people having mental episodes and people having medical emergencies. You have people with seizures and you have people attempting suicide.” That is only some of the horror that people suffer in solitary, or as New Jersey calls it, administrative segregation.

Seizing on the nomenclature of the term for solitary confinement, in 2016 former Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill to restrict the practice to 15 or 20 consecutive days over a two-month period. The bill would have also sought to exempt mentally ill or pregnant inmates and require daily medical evaluations for those in isolation. His excuse? The piece of legislation, “seeks to resolve a problem that does not exist in New Jersey.”

But the problem very much does exist in the Garden State. Of the roughly 80,000 inmates in the United States currently in isolation, New Jersey holds 1,500. New Jersey ranks fourth in the country in the amount of time it places people in isolation. As far back as 2011 the United Nations claimed such punishment amounts to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Today, however, there is a turn of opinion in the Garden State, and another bill is back on the table. A-314/S-3261 would have similar exemptions as the bill Christie vetoed, and expand it to include people over 21 and young and 65 and older, and people with developmental disabilities and serious mental conditions. Survivors are telling their stories and forcing others who would not have interacted with the criminal justice system to examine the uses and abuses of solitary confinement. It is forcing the citizens of New Jersey to recognize that we are not treating other people with respect and dignity the moment that they are labeled “prisoner.” 

Nafeesah Goldsmith’s bravery and willingness to come forward with her story, along with those of others, is helping to make significant and positive changes in New Jersey as regards our treatment of incarcerated human beings. She is willing to tell her story at schools, at coalition events, and to anyone who will listen. It’s time we started to listen. 

(Photo Credit: Asbury Park Press / Doug Ford)

What goes on in New Jersey’s county jails? Overcrowding. Suicide. Death.

Hudson County jail

In 2018, New Jersey was embroiled in a federal investigation into rampant sexual abusein the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for women. That investigation culminated in several criminal investigations, indictments of correctional officers and a committee hearing that hopefully will bring some positive changes to the state prison – if positive changesand prisoncan be put together in the same sentence. But what is going on in New Jersey’s county jails may be even more insidious and too often falls under the radar. Twenty of the state’s 21 counties have jails, and they operate with little oversight from the state DOC.

According to the latest figures available from the DOJ, the Garden State jails have the highest per-capita death rate among the 30 states with the largest jail populations. The biggest driver of rising death rates was suicides committed by people suffering from untreated drug addictions and mental illnesses.

The rate of suicides in New Jersey county jails has risen an average of 55% each year between 2012 and 2016. With the exception of Hudson County, these deaths have garnered very little government attention, and action. Hudson County increased spending on mental health and stepped up screenings as part of the intake process for prisoners. Even so, in Hudson County, of 17 recorded deaths at the jail since 2013, officials could only find six incident reports. Between June 2017 and March 2018 alone, six inmates died in the Hudson County jail.  

Cynthia Acosta committed suicide at the Hudson County jail. Acosta had been receiving help for drug abuse and admitted herself to an inpatient mental health program at Christ Hospital in Jersey City, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Medication was helping to stabilize her, according to her brother, David Acosta. 

Ready to find her own place and about to file for housing assistance, Cynthia Acosta needed a copy of her identification record. She drove to a government office in Hoboken despite having a suspended driver’s license and was arrested by North Bergen police officers for past traffic violations. Her medicine was left in the car after her arrest. Three days later she was dead. 

Cynthia’s death was preventable. Having been booked in the Hudson facility, she was housed in the combined medical and mental health unit, “a small, windowless, triangle-shaped room bordered by three cells, a shower and a nurses’ station.” The Director of the jail has acknowledged that the nurses didn’t have enough training and resources to deal with mental health issues. Neverthelss, he claimed defended that inmates were properly monitored … despite the suicide rate.

The issues do not stop at North Jersey. In Cumberland County, a man from Vineland became the seventh inmate to die from suicide at the county jail since 2015. The Atlantic County Jail has had six suicides in the past three years. Housing inmates and then completely disregarding their need for mental heath has become normalized across New Jersey. Multiple lawsuits against county jails have become the new norm, with family members demanding answers. 

Meanwhile, county contracts with ICE have led to massive overcrowding in county jails. Bergen County jails nearly tripled its capacity for federal detainees. Hudson county is at 134% of its capacity. The three biggest county governments – Bergen, Hudson, and Essex – are now earning a total of $6 milliona month to hold immigrants in their county jails. Bergen County’s contract with ICE contributes to 7.4% of Bergen’s “miscellaneous” non-tax revenues. Holding undocumented immigrants is big business.

Hidden in plain sight, New Jersey’s county jails contribute to such notorious abuses and neglect that they should be front and center of media headlines. But being quiet and closing our eyes is very good for business.

Cynthia Acosta and brother David Acosta

(Photo Credit 1: Reena Rose Sibayan / Jersey Jour/ NJ.com) (Photo Credit 2: David Acosta / NJ.com)

New Jersey’s Police Have an Excessive Force Problem

Police have the right to punch you if you’re resisting arrest. They have the right to tackle you if they think you might flee. And they have the right to shoot you if they fear for their lives. The single greatest authority granted a police officer is the right to harm another person, and most use it sparingly to protect themselves and the public. But who’s watching the ones who abuse their power?”

NJ Advance Media for NJ.com recently published a 16-month investigation, which found that the tracking for New Jersey’s police use of excessive force is broken, with no statewide collection, little oversight by state officials and no standard practices in the department. NJ.com compiled nearly 73,000 instances of use-of-force, covering municipal police departments and State Police from 2012 through 2016, filing 506 public records requests to highlight the extraordinary use of excessive force on New Jerseyans by the state’s law enforcement. 

The report highlight a disturbing trend: around ten percent of officers account for 38 percent of all uses of force, with a total of 296 officers using force more than five times the state average. Between 2012 and 2016 9,302 people were injured by police; 4,210 of those were serious enough cases that required hospital care. At least 156 officers put at least one person in the hospital in each of the five years under review. 

In New Jersey, populations of color fare far worse in than whites. People of color are three times more likely to face police force. For example, in Lakewood, a Black person 21 times more likely to face police force than whites. Because of inconsistent and lackluster reporting, New Jersey fails to monitor trends to flag officers who use disproportionately excessive amounts of force. Though the state recently implemented an early warning system to identify potential problem officers, they did not mandate tracking use-of-force trends as a criterion for tracking. 

From the local to the state level, police officers are not held accountable when their excessive use of force puts people in harm’s way and are able to continue working without fear of losing their jobs. The numbers of people hurt in the process of being put in contact with police is staggering. One officer in Camden reported injuring 27 people in the four-year span alone

The report highlights the state’s complete relinquishment of responsibility for its citizens. As police officers are able to use deadly force on Black bodies, they get away punishment free because of a lack of consistent and modern reporting on use of force. 

The groundbreaking report also has its enemies in the Policeman’s Benevolent Association, or PBA, whose president, Patrick Colligan, issued a two-page response, criticizing, “The state of the journalism industry.” His criticism did not address the substantial numbers of excessive force New Jersey police have used and continued to use on marginalized communities. Police must be held accountable, both for the racist discrimination and violence perpetrated on Black people and Black communities and for the extraordinary number of citizens they have injured or sent to the hospital over the small span of four to five years. Change must come to address the use of excessive force in the state, and accountability needs to be addressed in the 468 local police departments as in the state police. That means standing up to a large group of PBA and supporters when tackling the issue in the future. Until then, more people will get hurt and marginalized communities will be the worst hit. (Click here to see the town and county breakdown of police use of force in the state of the New Jersey.)

(Infographic credit: NJ.com)