When Joe Clark came on as director of the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center in 1995, he committed to staying until he changed the gang-infested institution that serves some of the most troubled youth in his hometown of Newark, N.J.
Clark, the bat-toting principal portrayed in the film Lean on Me who used tough love to turn around Paterson, N.J.’s Eastside High School, has again shunned state bureaucracy, this time by resigning his post. His departure comes in the wake of state commission reports condemning his use of straitjackets and other restraints to punish some of the 265 youths at the 243-capacity center.
While colleagues and even some inmates defend Clark as an advocate and caretaker of his detainees, his actions raise questions about one of the youth field’s touchiest issues – safe and appropriate youth restraint.
New Jersey’s Manual of Standards for Juvenile Detention Facilities, by which all 18 county juvenile centers must abide, allows for restraints in situations where “self-protection, the protection of others, the residents and property, and the prevention of escapes” are a concern, and only “as a last resort.” Officials are instructed to begin with verbal calming, followed by non-aggressive restraint and, if necessary, the use of “handcuffs, leather restraints or leg irons.”
The state Commission on Juvenile Justice report, based on a visit in October (Clark refused to let commission members revisit the following month), alleges that Clark had punished eight residents of the center by placing them on lockdown (restricted to quarters for 23 hours out of the day) for 37 straight days. The commission also said Clark had used handcuffs and unapproved “restraint mittens” for periods well past the maximum one hour, and had detainees placed in straightjackets for hours after they screamed at a captain for turning off a television.
This was not Clark’s first run-in with the state. He was investigated in 1996 after he shackled 12 detainees to their beds for two-and-a-half days. Those detainees, Clark told the New York Times then, had been throwing feces and urine, attacking youths and officers, and rioted during a church service at the center.
In a letter to the Essex County Department of Citizens Services, commission Director Bruce Stout said “the recent actions of Director Clark raise serious issues about the management” of the facility, and that “the inappropriate use of mechanical restraints … and other egregious violations must immediately cease.”
While his colleagues may not condone all of Clark’s tactics, some say change is needed. Thomas Ramsey, superintendent of the Morris County juvenile detention center (which sends guards to train at Essex County), is asking the state for more restraint equipment. “I see where the state’s coming from, but things have changed,” he says. “Kids are there for murder, rape, robbery, and a lot of it is gang-oriented. There has been a serious escalation of violence.”
Such violence, coupled with consistent overpopulation and guard shortages, is why “Crazy Joe” was brought in to direct Essex in the first place. According to Clark, violence is under control, suicide attempts are down and escapes have been eliminated under his paramilitary-style rule. The center’s highly-touted Sojourner Truth high school has been studied for replication by facilities across the country. One of the detainees shackled in the riot incident in 1996, Lamont Vaughn, even wrote a letter two months ago supporting Clark’s methods.
The New Jersey juvenile detention facilities house youth awaiting trial, some for trials in adult court. It is a system that begets a constant turnover of troublesome clientele. Those who defend the rights of these kids based on their innocence, Clark says, “are made of the stuff that makes tomatoes grow. They may not have been adjudicated, but they are guilty as hell.”
“The state wants to punish with adult status, but not supervise with adult rules,” says Clenard Childress, a former guard and now chaplain of the Essex County center. “There has to be a revamping of the current state laws to deal with the gangs. Kids choosing to remain neutral are prey, so the real crime is what detainees are doing to each other. Joe Clark is just going to great lengths to ensure that there is respect of detainees.”
Gerald Bowden, Ocean County Juvenile Detention Center program director and president of the New Jersey Juvenile Detention Association, acknowledges the difficult situation at Essex County, but firmly opposes the use of restraints in any punitive manner. Their use must be “done with your head, not with your gut,” he says. Ocean County, he adds, has had success with a behavior modification system that awards points for positive behavior that add up to increased privileges.
Yet both Bowden and Ramsey say changes must be made to ensure accountability. “We can’t have youth assaulting officers and other detainees, and just spend two hours in a cell,” Ramsey says. “There has to be some cause and effect. We have to protect, and there have to be consequences.”