Short Stories and Poems

The Closing of Natural Bridge Juvenile Corrections

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Door slams on golden opportunity

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Amelia Roberson

Roberson, of Salem, is an English instructor at Natural Bridge Juvenile Correction Center.

By now, most Virginians are aware of the sudden terminations of three prison facilities, including the lesser known, but irreplaceable, Natural Bridge Juvenile Correctional Center (Thunder Ridge High School). This closing is extremely disconcerting as Natural Bridge is Virginia’s only minimum-security complex available to those youths who have earned the privilege of attending.

Open since 1964, it affords juvenile offenders superb SOL training, GED programs, work-release opportunities and accessibility to higher education at Dabney-Lancaster Community College. In addition, it is the only existing facility to offer mandatory work skills education in brick masonry, auto mechanics, building maintenance and woodworking.

Natural Bridge residents develop into contributing, self-respecting citizens who return to their communities with the education and job skills that will potentially break the infectious cycle of generational poverty, the very phenomenon that predictably led to their incarcerations. How irresponsible to obliterate a program that has been successful for more than 40 years, that we can factually prove prevents future delinquency and crime. While the national percentage of recidivism stands at about 75 percent, graduates of Natural Bridge account for only 28 percent.

Residents are mentored by caring, highly qualified teachers, counselors and adults, and in return, are held to a high standard of personal accountability. This unique combination of resources and educational philosophy has drawn the interest of more than several public school systems, as our SOL passing rates are higher than many others, despite the fact the center serves the academically lowest demographic and deals with both emotionally damaged youths and those with serious behavioral issues.

Some students have never encountered stability, encouragement or effectual education. On average, and for a myriad of reasons, most are at least three grades behind in school. Natural Bridge is the golden opportunity these young people can use to reclaim their lives and learn independence and personal responsibility, while experiencing a safe haven within which they flourish. Gov. Tim Kaine should have spent a weekend at this amazing facility before calling for its immediate and devastating closure that will affect not only some amazing young people, but will negatively impact an entire community of Virginia’s work force and its economy.

Perhaps Kaine could have helped the residents feed their cows, fix a set of brakes or work on Algebra II. Instead, our residents will return to high-security prison environments marked by dangerous levels of violence and fear, which will necessitate their reversion to a survival mentality. That’s both unnecessary and pathetic.

Yes, Virginians will ultimately pay for the mistake of closing this little-known oasis that is Natural Bridge. There will definitely be a proliferation of drug abuse, distribution and its accompanying violence. It kills me to know that some of the very residents who are so speedily being readied to leave will fall back down the steady, pervasive slope that is greased by fear, intimidation and desperation. Yes, they will serve their time and be released, but I fear they will return home, not with hope and belief in themselves, but with bitterness and disillusion.

Not rehabilitating our young people simply hobbles our ability to strengthen the commonwealth, not to mention dashes the imminent potentials of our young people to succeed and change the direction of their lives and our society.

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