While Illinois is closing two youth prisons as a cost-cutting measure, other states are not. Washington State’s King County recently passed a $210 million renovation and expansion of its youth jail. Undeterred, activists work to halt the jail. In Baltimore, organizing against a youth jail proves that popular disapproval can derail supposedly done deals.
With the number of youth behind bars at an all-time low – dropping 41 percent from 107,000 in 1995 to under 71,000 in 2010 – are more youth jails really necessary? Research has shown that community-based programs that keep youth connected to their families are more likely to succeed than jails or prisons. So when Dede Adhanom learned that King County was proposing to renovate and expand its current youth jail in Seattle’s Central District, she was outraged.
On April 5, 2012, King County Council members held a public meeting at Seattle University to introduce Proposition 1, a $210 million tax levy to renovate the dilapidated King County Youth Services Center to include a youth detention center with 154 dorms as well as ten family courtrooms. “It was at 1 PM. A lot of people can’t make 1 PM meetings unless they work at a job that pays them to be there,” Adhanom noted. Undeterred, she and several others attended. “We shouted them out of there. That they’re having the public meeting at 1 PM shows their intentions.”
That was the first action of the group that became No New Juvie. To counter the Seattle University meeting, the group convened a People’s Forum. “Dede spoke as someone who had been incarcerated. Another person who had been incarcerated as a youth spoke about his experience,” Alex West, another No New Juvie member, recalled in a separate interview. The group held events in Seattle neighborhoods where residents were most affected by incarceration. They organized a Festival of Resistance outside the juvie. “We made posters and patches. We had games. We had a self-defense workshop and a building healthy relationships workshop. We asked, ‘What do we need to make the jail obsolete?'”
Adhanom noted that the expanded facility is called the Children and Family Justice Center. “They didn’t call it a detention center or jail,” she pointed out. Even then, it only passed with 55 percent of voters’ support. West recalled that several friends later told him that, not realizing the Center was a jail, they had voted in favor of the levy.
According to the official timeline, King County is currently conducting outreach to identify issues and stakeholders and is requesting proposals to select a communication consultant. One might say that, with the tax levy passed and the county embarking upon its first steps, the new jail is a done deal.
Lesson From Baltimore: Even Done Deals can be Undone
However, across the country, grassroots organizers have learned that even done deals can be undone. In 2005, Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich approved the planning money for building a youth jail in Baltimore. According to Maryland state law, juveniles charged as adults are not allowed to be held in designated juvenile facilities. Instead, the approximately 50 youth charged as adults are held in adult facilities while awaiting trial or until their case has been remanded back to the juvenile court system. The proposed jail would have 230 beds.
In 2009, Heber Brown III, pastor of the Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, read an article in the Baltimore Sun about the proposed jail. “I was shocked and perturbed,” he told Truthout.
Brown utilized his pulpit at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church to talk about the youth jail. He wrote articles. He reached out to the contacts he had developed over a decade of organizing in Baltimore City. “The climate lent itself to the campaign [against the jail],” he recalled. “The city was proposing closing schools and recreation centers. The state was having a perennial financial deficit. It wasn’t difficult for anyone to see the hypocrisy of building a hundred-million-dollar jail when they’re closing schools and services.”
Others were also incensed about the proposed jail. When Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots youth-of-color-led think-tank, learned about it, they began mobilizing.
“The jail was sold to the general public as a humanitarian effort for young people who are incarcerated in adult facilities that are overcrowded, full of ‘hardened criminals,’ etc.,” LBS member Lawrence Grandpre told Truthout. He pointed out that the numbers used were based on projections of a dramatic increase in youth incarceration, ignoring the decrease in youth crime.
“Many of us understood the role of racism and white supremacy in mass incarceration,” Dayvon Love, another LBS member, added, noting that black youth are more likely to be charged as adults than their white counterparts.
LBS members took a multifaceted approach to engage the community and involve youth. They held community forums in which they spoke out against the jail. They appeared on the radio, including Baltimore’s popular Marc Steiner show. They reached out to legislators.
“In the beginning, the legislators said it was a done deal,” Grandpre recalled. “Then, they told us individually, ‘Personally, I’m against the jail, but I can’t activate until I see activism against the jail.'”
Activists took advantage of the 2010 election cycle, targeting not only Governor Martin O’Malley, who was running for re-election but other candidates as well. Brown and others began the Stop the O’Malley Jail Campaign: “They showed up at election stops, asked the candidates where they stood on the issue, videotaped their responses and posted them on YouTube,” recalled Jamye Wooten, the founder/publisher of Kineticslive.com, an online forum linking social justice issues and faith communities.
“We always knew where the governor would be on his campaign,” Brown recalled. “We’d show up with signs, bullhorns, screaming about the issue. He learned to expect us when he came to Baltimore.”
Brown also exposed those who would profit from the new youth jail, placing the names, companies and even CEO faces on his site. A week later, he wrote to ask if black politicians would speak out against the jail, posting their names, photos and history of silence around the issue. “We knew we had to be willing to go that far because of how closely the prison-industrial complex is connected to those in politics,” he stated.
Wooten had experience organizing Justice Sundays, which provides a framework around poverty, youth incarceration and other pressing issues for individual church services. He and Brown came up with the idea of Youth Justice Sunday, to be held on October 31, 2010, at the site of the proposed jail. Wooten began reaching out to Baltimore churches for endorsements. Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle reached out to students and youth. Other groups reached out to their networks.
That afternoon, several hundred people came together on the football field of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, a few blocks from the proposed site. After a public rally, which included Muslim and Christian services, the crowd marched to the gates of the proposed site. In an act of civil disobedience, several people broke the locks on the surrounding fence, entered and planted books and yellow signs reading “Money for jobs and education, not jails.”
Wooten noted that, whereas politicians (with the exception of Delegate Jill Carter) had previously remained reluctant to support anti-jail efforts, some showed up to Youth Justice Sunday, which was two days before Election Day. “By then, the coalition has been building, the buzz is circulating and the clergy is beginning to endorse it. Strategically, it would be good to stand on that side.” Youth Justice Sunday led to the creation of the Stop the Jail Alliance, a combination of nonprofits, youth-led groups (such as LBS, the Algebra Project and JustKids), church groups, radical activists and other concerned Baltimoreans, who met weekly to strategize how to halt the jail.
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle also reached out to Baltimore youth to mobilize them around the issue. They sponsored “Battle: Bar None,” a youth hip-hop contest on the subject of the School-to-Prison Pipeline, reaching out to middle school, high school and college students. “We reached a lot of youth who wouldn’t have come to one of the community forums or other events,” Grandpre reflected.
In January 2013, eight years after the jail had been introduced, state officials announced that the jail would not be built. Citing a decline in youth crime since 2007, the Department of Juvenile Services and the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) announced that the youth jail would not be built. Instead, at a press conference, they announced plans to renovate DPSCS’s Pre-release Unit to hold youth charged as adults and built a regional treatment facility within the city.
Advocates remain wary of the proposed plan, arguing instead for preventive services. “If you had the services, you wouldn’t need to lock people up,” Love noted. “If you have a jail, then you’re going to fill it.”
“Our goal now is to get the funds allocated for the jail redirected into preventive programs,” stated Dupre.
In addition, Love points out that the law automatically charging youth as adults for certain offenses needs to be changed. “Youth who are not charged as adults can access services from the Department of Juvenile Services, such as education and mental health care.”
- 68 percent of youth automatically charged as adults were ultimately sent to juvenile court or had their cases dismissed.
- A child is likely to spend nearly five months in adult jail before having a hearing to consider his request to be sent to the juvenile system.
- Youth in 13 of the 135 cases were held in adult jail for over a year without having been convicted and without receiving any rehabilitative services.
- An African-American youth in Maryland is far more likely to be charged and convicted as an adult than a white youth.
Services Instead of Sentences
As reported in Truthout last month, in 2012, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced his decision to close several prisons, including two youth prisons in Murphysboro and Joliet. His decision stems not only from budget concerns but also as a result of ongoing advocacy by juvenile justice groups to divert youth from incarceration.
“Ten years ago, approximately 2,000 youth were locked up on any given day (in Illinois) and it looked like the number would continue to climb,” stated Elizabeth Clarke, executive director of the Illinois-based Juvenile Justice Institute.
In 2005, Illinois’s Department of Human Services developed Redeploy Illinois, an initiative that offers financial incentives to counties to provide community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. “It was targeted to the top committing counties, except for Cook and Winnebago Counties. The goal was to reduce youth incarceration by 25 percent over a three-year period,” Clarke noted. “By 2010, most counties have reduced it by over 50 percent.” Those reductions have decreased the number of youth behind bars to under 900. Of those, Clarke states, 90 percent would be eligible for Redeploy services if they were offered by their home county.
In August 2011, Illinois passed HB83, which encourages judges to consider community alternatives before placing youth in prison. Clarke is hopeful that the measure, which went into effect in January 2012, will further decrease the number of youth sentenced to prison.
The dramatic drop allowed advocates to argue for closing youth prisons. “Youth prisons are only at 70 percent capacity, so we had a better shot of being heard,” Mariame Kaba, director of Project NIA, told Truthout.
In 2011, Quinn announced his decision to close IYC Murphysboro. “We talked to people in the governor’s office and offered to help push this,” Kaba recalled. Project NIA produced fact sheets about the drop in incarceration. It held teach-ins to galvanize support. But, framing the issue as a potential loss of jobs, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union representing prison employees, blocked the closing.
Undeterred, advocates tried again, this time pushing for closing both Murphysboro and Joliet. “We had a call-in day in which people called their legislators to support the closures. We had a petition,” Kaba recalled. “Of course, there was pushback from the prison union. They posted some horrific things about the youth on our Facebook, but it made people aware of the issue and question why such people were entrusted to guard youth. They ended up bringing people to our side.”
Kaba points out that, in 2011, prison closings lost seven-to-two in a vote by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. The following year, the vote was tied five-to-five. “In one year, we had moved enough legislators to tie the vote.”
Both Kaba and Clarke stress that, while the fiscal crisis may have propelled the initial decision to shutter the prisons, years of groundwork by activists and advocates and the alternatives implemented made it possible. “It’s been many years and many people addressing the issues, so we could jump when the opportunity presented itself,” Kaba stated.
In his 2014 budget address, Quinn noted that closing IYC Murphysboro, IYC Joliet and other state institutions, “has not only saved money it was also good policy. When I took office, Illinois had 1,330 young people in juvenile detention centers. Today we have 857. Our community-based rehabilitation strategies are working. They are reducing our juvenile population and helping more young offenders choose a better path.”
Learning From One Another to Strengthen Our Movements
A few months ago, No New Juvie changed its name to WISH (Washington Incarceration Stops Here) to reflect a broader politics of abolition while continuing to work against the youth jail. WISH holds monthly noise demonstrations outside the site on 12th Avenue and Alder. They hold community forums. They’ve had spoken-word events with youth to raise their awareness. They visit high schools, afterschool programs and youth centers to talk about the issue.
Organizers in Baltimore and Chicago have several recommendations for WISH and others fighting to halt youth jails and prisons:
“Take advantage of the common sense of the community. It didn’t take long for people to connect the issues. We got elected officials to move on it because of the numbers of people involved,” stated Dayvon Love.
“Partner with young people. They’ll bring energy. And I mean really partner with them, not just have them as tokens,” Brown advised. “Explore the financial and political connections. What corporations got the contracts? Who didn’t? There may be allies and opposition that you’re unaware of. Also, the faith community can often have moral authority and strength. No matter your personal beef with religion, have enough awareness that, even if you don’t get down with the church, someone else does. That’s an organized group that can be mobilized.”
“Plan for the long term,” advised Mariame Kaba. “Folks have pushed for years for diversion, so facilities don’t have a reason to come into being.” She also pointed out the importance of fact sheets. “People used those when talking to their legislators. Legislators couldn’t justify keeping these prisons open and we actually swayed some people to our side because we had those facts. And pay attention to the laws and policies being passed in your name. We need steady, consistent advocacy for not criminalizing youth.”
All agree that stopping new jails and shuttering existing facilities require broad coalitions. “It’s important that we get to know people outside our own community. Often we work inside our little bubble,” reflected Wooten. At the same time, Brown, Dupre and Love also caution activists to be sensitive to the dynamics of working with nonprofits. “We read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded as a group, so we were aware that since nonprofits and foundations have the money and access to politicians, they may not press as hard as we need them to.”
They also agree that factors leading to incarceration must be addressed. “There’s a fixation on interpersonal violence,” Brown noted. “But what about when politicians pull resources from the communities? Most of the young people (incarcerated) are from areas where schools are poor; banks have left; it’s a food desert. This is political violence. When do we hold politicians accountable for political violence? When do we hold corporations accountable for corporate irresponsibility? We need to look at this in a more comprehensive way. It’s not just about the jail but about everything leading up to it.”
Finally, Brown notes, “We need to connect with each other. People in Seattle need to be talking to folks in Baltimore, to people in the Bay, in New York City. How can we learn from one another and strengthen our movements?”