RISE for Youth opposes correctional center

Published 5:31 pm Friday, April 5, 2019

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Advocates say facility is better suited for Newport News, Hampton


When Valerie Slater stood up to address Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors during citizens time at the Board’s March 21 meeting, she, like many others who had signed up to speak that evening, advocated against plans to bring a 60-bed juvenile correctional center to the Windsor area — but not for the reasons one might expect.

Slater is not a county resident worried about escapes or property values, but rather the executive director of RISE for Youth, a nonpartisan coalition that advocates for community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. “RISE,” she said, stands for “Reinvest In Supportive Environment.” Its mission: to ensure that young people who are involved in Virginia’s juvenile justice system receive the services and support they need to become contributing and successful members of society.

At the meeting, Slater said she was “here to stand for the residents of Isle of Wight who stand against this facility,” and also to speak for “who is not standing here tonight,” these being the system-involved youth from Newport News and Hampton who will be housed at the center, and their families.

“You are not their elected officials, but what you do impacts them,” Slater said.

Speaking to The Tidewater News, Slater said that about 40 percent of the youth currently in the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice’s custody are from the cities of Newport News, Hampton and Norfolk. In 2017, roughly 68 percent of those youths were African-American, and just 27.7 percent were white. In 2018, the black percentage of incarcerated youths in Virginia had risen to 71, while the DJJ’s white population decreased 5 percent.

“And now, we’re pouring all these resources into a white, rural community where none of these kids are coming from,” Slater said.

Earlier in March, RISE for Youth released a short YouTube video filmed outside the Windsor Town Center featuring James Braxton III from Newport News and Joshua Wingard from Windsor, both of whom advocated for the facility to be built in Newport News or one of the other cities from which a majority of those in DJJ custody are coming. Braxton is RISE for Youth’s strategic engagement director, while Wingard is a Liberty University student studying digital arts, whose family has a farm in Windsor.

Greg Davy, the DJJ’s public information officer, confirmed that the Virginia Department of General Services, which will be responsible for the actual construction of the facility, did not negotiate with Newport News, Hampton or Norfolk prior to opening negotiations with Isle of Wight County.

“It’s worth remembering that Isle of Wight would be a huge improvement for youth from Hampton Roads who are confined at Bon Air, which is much farther away from their homes,” Davy said. “The same people who are claiming that Isle of Wight is too far away also opposed the facility in Chesapeake, which would have been even closer.”

Braxton also spoke at the March 21 meeting, admitting that he, at age 20, had been involved in Virginia’s correctional system.

“In 2005, I was arrested for attempted robbery, possession of a firearm,” he said. “I was on trial for two years.”

Speaking to the newspaper, Braxton explained that he spent two months in jail, but after he successfully got his bond reduced, his family was able to bail him out.

“It was a struggle to find employment,” he said, but eventually Braxton was offered a position as a pediatric dental assistant. He now credits the fact that he was allowed to remain in his community and to work while awaiting his trial, rather than being locked up, as the reason for his rehabilitation and later success in life.

“[Prison] it’s not set up to show you who you can be; it’s set up to keep you there,” he said.

Braxton and Slater both plan to attend the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors’ April 18 meeting at 6 p.m. in the Windsor Town Center, located at 23361 Courthouse Highway, Windsor, at which the Board may take a final vote on the county’s contract with the DJJ after several weeks of negotiations.