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In Nov. 2021 after ten years of our evolving mission and impact, we changed our name to Gathering Ground. You may still find reference to our old name Creative New Jersey in posts created prior to Nov. 2021.

LNJ Part V: Encounters with New Jersey’s Criminal Justice System

June 2015 Seminar
This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing my experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars our class participates in over the course of one year.  For the next several weeks I’ll be posting a blog every Monday up through my graduation in early December 2015.

This blog is about my Criminal Justice seminar.

For Lead NJ alumni, that statement communicates volumes. Everyone remembers their Criminal Justice seminar. Everyone has their story of the tour of the maximum security prison in Trenton. Mostly, when the Criminal Justice seminar is mentioned, people raise their eyebrows meaningfully, or cast their eyes to the floor. Just about everyone breathes deeply and utters some version of, “…Yeah…”

The story of our criminal justice system is a story that needs to be told. It’s a story that is messy, that has many circumstances that influence perceptions and outcomes. It’s a story that I have personally encountered, to a degree, from several sides.

But before I tell my story, a little laying of ground work:

Where we are now:

Our LNJ June seminar began at the campus of Princeton University with Bruce Stout, Associate Professor and Chair of the Criminal Justice Department at the The College of New Jersey, who gave us a concise history of the prison system in our country, focusing on the changes we’ve seen since the “War on Crime” was declared in the 1960s.

We learned that our country, originally founded with the idea that people were redeemable and able to be rehabilitated back into society, shifted in a span of 50 years (from the “War on Crime” era to today) to a country where sentencing was tougher and lasted longer; where people, if they were unable to pay bail, were given the choice of being locked up until the bail was paid or pleading guilty and buying them their release until trial (providing they were not considered a flight risk); a country where it can take years before a case is brought to trial, and if unable to pay bail and unwilling to plead guilty, the accused often stays behind bars.

The U.S. has 5% of the world’s total population. Yet we have almost 25% of the entire world’s prison population. I’ll say it again: One-quarter of the entire world’s prison population is right here in the U.S. You are no longer a family of four. You are a family of three. In a class of about 50, twelve of my LNJ classmates are in prison, or maybe I am. In New Jersey, it costs taxpayers over $54,000 per person, per year, so $648,000 per year to incarcerate just twelve people.

In the four months since our seminar many of these issues have been regularly in the news cycle, in some ways sparked by the high profile, horrific stories that came out of places like Riker’s Island in 2014, including that of Kalief Browder. In New Jersey, Governor Christie was ahead of our federal representatives when he passed bail reform measures in 2014.

Now, we’re seeing movement at the federal level to start the hard work of systematic change: In 2015, the U.S. Congress saw uncommon bipartisan support for sentencing reform for a variety of social and economic reasons. This past Friday, President Obama’s plan to provide early release to some 6,000 non-violent drug offenders began, and today Obama is scheduled to announce what some are dubbing landmark efforts to support and assist ex-offenders.

Here’s the thing:

I can give you all the statistics, all the bright spots and shifts we’re seeing in bail reform, in re-entry and prevention programs; in community policing reforms we’re seeing that are creating significant change in our cities and towns, like Camden, or Boston’s Operation Ceasefire; and with the many programs that the NJ Institute for Social Justice’s James Johnson and Jerry Harris, both of whom spoke at our seminar, run in communities around our state.

Those bright spots might make an impression – hopefully a lasting one. They might change the way you think or talk or act. From my experience, it’s stories that make those statistics real. This is my story about prisons. This is the only story I can tell, because it’s the story that forced me to act:

I have helped put a man in prison: for stealing cell phones from our actors while a performance was in progress. I knew the man by sight – he panhandled in the neighborhood. In my previous encounters with him I became aware that there was some kind of mental disability or development issue. When I caught him in the act and tried to stop him by blocking the doorway, demanding that he empty his pockets, he never once tried to touch me, push me, or scare me. He managed to reach past me and lever open the door, forcing his way past me and out onto the street.

Later that evening, after the performance, I went with the actors to the police station. We were able to track the phones remotely via the iPhone app and went with two police officers to a halfway house, where I identified the man and the phones were recovered. I stood in the hallway outside of this man’s shared room – on the threshold of his home. If you re-offend when you’re in a halfway house, you usually go back to jail.

I felt sick, though people tried to make me feel better – because he had done something wrong, after all. He had planned when and where to find the cell phones. He had acted. Two months later, he was back at the door of the theatre, which was a converted church, panhandling, asking for food. I don’t know where he was living. He didn’t seem to remember me.

People close to me have intimate knowledge of prison systems – be it by helping those released from incarceration, or because they know those who are inside for minor and more major offenses, sometimes with complications from substance abuse or mental illness.

12_lifetime_likelihood_raceI have learned from these people how deeply the deck is stacked against offenders – of which a disproportionately high number are men and women of color. I have learned some of what imprisonment does to the family and friends and dependents left behind. I have learned the tiniest bit about the immensity of obstacles facing those who return from incarceration, including inability to get hired for a job, ineligibility for public housing or public assistance, regaining a driver’s license, something as seemingly simple as clearing your record of parking tickets, or the difficult process of getting custody of your children back.

I have also sat at a table in a conference room, in an inpatient mental facility, testifying against a dear friend suffering from a mental illness.  I did this in order to keep that friend in care and under supervision, until my friend was well again, which meant my friend would be transferred to another facility, on prison grounds.

I have stood on the opposite side of a window with reinforced glass, set in a locked metal door, in a building surrounded by barbed wire, with the hope I could visit with that friend to try and convince them to accept medication (which must be voluntary). I have walked out those doors, past the barbed wire and driven back to my suburban community after I was refused entry. That walk back to the car, which I did on more than one occasion, was one of the longest walks in my life.

A year later, I coached my mother through the process of legal advocacy and social support when a family friend suffered a mental illness-related event that started with our family friend’s incarceration. Both friends, I’m grateful to say, are fully recovered and on a solid pathway to full recovery, respectively.

What about the individuals who deal with a mental illness who don’t have someone to advocate for them, though – someone, in all likelihood, like the man who stole the phones from my theatre? A 2006 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that “more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem,” (emphasis mine) which includes state, federal and local jail systems.

The report goes on to discuss the prevalence of addiction and substance abuse, trauma from prior physical and sexual abuse, and other consequences of some untreated mental illnesses (inability to hold a job, higher rates of illegal income, etc.), and the number of inmates with mental health issues who received some sort of treatment. Some people attribute this incredibly high rate of mental illness in the prison system to the closing of state-run mental hospitals in the 1960s.

Drug Courts

justice_drug courtOn our second day of the LNJ Seminar, speakers Jethro Antoine (Newark Community Solutions, Center for Court Innovation) and Wayne Wirta (New Jersey Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) helped shed light on the inner workings of the Drug Court system in New Jersey.  Drug Court was created to intervene and divert non-violent offenders from incarceration into programs that treat addiction and mental health issues, coupled with court dates, community service and other stipulations.

The Drug Court system has its supporters and detractors, but evidence is showing that these types of interventions do work, and a team consisting of the judge, prosecutor and public defender, and any social workers or treatment program experts work together on each case to determine if someone is completing the required steps to successfully finish their program and eventually help to clear his or her record.

1200px-New_Jersey_State_PrisonThe Prison Tour

I’ve thought long and hard about how to describe what it felt like to walk the halls of the New Jersey State Prison with my LNJ classmates. I think each person’s experience is their own, and rather than describe everything I saw while there, I’ll leave you with impressions.

When you enter the prison you must register at the front desk, where your ID is taken until you return. You are allowed no possessions. The dress code is restricted. A classmate astutely remarked weeks later that it felt like having your own liberties taken away. When you entered the prison doors, my classmate continued, you enter “with a feeling of vulnerability, one that only gets enhanced as you walk through a series of locked gates, escorted by a fleet of guards.” Unlike the non-violent offenders I’ve talked about in the rest of this blog, this prison is where violent offenders are housed – those responsible for assault, murder and rape, along with those who were involved with violent crime and may or may not have been directly responsible.

I remember being struck by how clean everything was. How bright it was. The relationships of the guards and the prisoners – occasionally joking with one another. How very calm, precise and orderly everything was.

After a glance inside one of the rooms, through a long narrow window of reinforced glass, in which the inmates were sleeping or just not interested in our group’s presence, I stopped looking. I felt like I was intruding. Like I was standing on that threshold outside of the halfway house bedroom door again.

Lost somewhere in the middle of my group, I waited in line to step inside a cell – to experience the dimensions, the air, the light. As we continued the tour I wondered, with the overcrowding we hear about, how the prison could afford to have a “model cell” set up for tours to see?

In an older part of the oldest operating prison in the state (1798), I felt like I was boarding a commercial shipping vessel, complete with tiny little efficiency cabins. With bars on the doors. I remember what it felt like to look at four stories of these little barred cabins, stacked to the ceiling. I had made my way to the front of the group, eager to hear the answers to my classmate’s questions but unwilling to ask my own. We were going to be shown a model single occupancy cell.

And we watched: while the inmate in the cell nearest to us was let out, asked to walk about 150 yards to the far end of the hallway, and wait. This wasn’t a “model cell” for us to tour any more than the first one had been. Stupid of me to think so, really. This was someone’s home. We’d asked this man to leave it so a bunch of strangers could step inside, turn around, and then leave again. Right before he was sent back in.

I felt a little sick. This time, I didn’t go in.

At the end of our tour, we spoke with two inmates in their 50s who were serving life sentences, one serving his twentieth year, one in his twenty-seventh year, both still with several years before they could ask for the possibility of parole. I was in grade school when these men became incarcerated. I remember the way these men, at least one of whom had never held a cell phone, fielded our questions with honesty and humility. One helped run the GED program at the prison. The other led a mentoring group affiliated with the NAACP that paired older inmates with younger inmates to try to acclimate them to a new way of life “inside” and hopefully help them with emotional, mental and social issues they struggled with.

Prisons are mandated to offer education programs. Prisons can help to provide job training. Prisons can provide treatment for mental health issues, and regular health issues, when people can’t get access to help on the “outside.” The New Jersey State Prison in Trenton has a law reading library so inmates have access to up-to-date legal information and inmate paralegals who can help to explain things. Prisons can be a support system, of a sort.

I remember the quietness of some people on the bus back to Princeton, and the relief-laughter and banter of others. I remember what it felt like to breathe again, back in the parking lot, and what it had felt like to breathe inside the cell.

The LNJ Criminal Justice seminar is one you never forget. Whether or not we’d like to believe it, we all encounter the effects of our country’s criminal justice system in one way or another. There are many ways into it, and few ways out of it. But, we’re starting to make changes, though we have a long, long way to go. Whatever your story is, I hope the story I’ve shared today – complicated, messy, personal – might change the way we all think or talk or act, and that when we do act, we do so in a way that takes into consideration circumstances, perceptions, outcomes, dignity, opportunity, safety, and our future.

I hope that you’ll share your stories, too.


Correction: The original posting incorrectly stated that 25% of the U.S.’s population is incarcerated.  The U.S. incarcerates enough people to make up 25% of the world’s population of prisoners.  Thanks to Craig Weinrich for the correction.  Thanks also to Meghan Jambor for a much better title than I had originally.

“New Jersey State Prison” by David Keddie – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons

Kacy O’Brien is the Program Manager at Creative New Jersey, a statewide initiative dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture, in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing Kacy’s experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars her class participates in over the course of one year. Topics range from policy to the economy, to education, arts and culture, energy, criminal justice and healthcare, with a focus on New Jersey’s current state and its future. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Lead NJ, The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Creative New Jersey, their staffs, and/or any/all contributors to this site.  For corrections or questions, please email Kacy at:

Kacy gratefully acknowledges Lead NJ and The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for their support of her participation in the 2015 Lead NJ program.

lead nj logo    Dodge JPG



“What an energizing and enlightening event! It was so wonderful to convene with recovery partners across the state to reflect on lessons learned. When we join forces and find a common voice, we are so much stronger and more effective. I look forward to being part of this movement to make meaningful changes which will positively impact the future of response and recovery in NJ.”

– Kelly Higgs – Former Executive Director of NJVOAD (statewide)