A modest win against youth incarceration

April 7, 2015

Steve Leigh reports on the campaign by anti-prison and anti-racist activists to prevent Seattle from building a new and "improved" juvenile prison.

SEATTLE ACTIVISTS fighting the construction of a new juvenile prison won a small but encouraging victory on March 31 when officials announced that the facility would have fewer beds and more resources devoted to services designed to keep young people out of jail.

The executive of King County (which includes the area in and around Seattle), Dow Constantine, declared that the new jail would have no more than 112 cells--rather than the originally proposed 154--with a maximum of 85 in use on any given day.

This change in plans is the result of months of organizing by anti-racist and anti-prison groups in Seattle. But many activists are vowing that they won't declare victory until there is no juvenile jail at all.

Mary Patterson, an activist with No New Jim Crow Seattle, said, "The new plan to reduce the number of jail cells to 112, with a maximum capacity for 85 detentions at a time, is another step on the path toward zero detentions."

The plans for the prison began in the summer of 2012, when voters in King County approved a deceptively worded proposal for a $210 million Children and Family Justice Center. Many voters did not understand that they were agreeing to the building of a new juvenile jail and have since reacted angrily to the news.

Seattle activists floated a balloon to send their message against the New Jim Crow
Seattle activists floated a balloon to send their message against the New Jim Crow (Sue Kay)

The current "juvie" is 50 years old and unsafe. It has over 200 cells, but the daily head count now hovers around 50, since the county has implemented diversion programs and other social programs. In spite of the lower numbers, however, institutional racism still dominates. Black youth are around 10 percent of King County's population, but 50 percent of the inmates in the facility.

A NUMBER of organizations threw themselves into the fight to prevent the city from spending even more of its resources on locking up young people of color. Groups involved included End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR), the No New Jim Crow Seattle Campaign, European Dissent, Washington Incarceration Stops Here (WISH), Outside Agitators 206, Squire Park Community Council and Women of Color for Systemic Change.

The campaign against the new juvenile jail has been intensive and wide-ranging. Activists held rallies and press conferences, forums and meetings, vigils and even a balloon floating.

Recently, two separate County Council meetings were thoroughly disrupted by activists opposed to the jail. The County Council was set to vote on continuing the jail plans with little public testimony. Activists insisted that the Council listen to opposition, which went on several hours. Of the dozens of people testifying, no one supported the jail plans.

The mainstream media turned this on its head, claiming that the activists had shut down democracy by shouting down jail supporters. In reality, if activists had not disrupted the meeting, county officials would have heard little testimony.

On March 28, EPIC and YUIR held a daylong tribunal to put the new jail on trial. Nearly 400 people turned out to organize against the proposal and institutional racism in general. One county councilor and two city councilors came to the event.

The No New Jim Crow Seattle Campaign is another group actively building opposition to the children's jail. It has been collecting petition signatures and holding a regular weekly vigil outside the County Building. On April 1, the group supplemented its vigil by floating a 30-foot long balloon outside the windows of the County building for over an hour. This drew lots of public attention. Signs on the balloon read: "Dow! Transformation Now!" "Education Not Incarceration" "Jobs Not Jails" and "Stop Jailing Children."

Black Lives Matter protests--led by Outside Agitators 206 and Women of Color for Systemic Change--have also connected the issue of police brutality to the caging of youth, marching to the old juvenile jail on several occasions.

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. March in January marched by the jail site and raised this as one of the key issues of the day. Hundreds of signs on the march read, "No children's jail."

Opponents of the juvenile jail have focused on several issues: The racism of the juvenile justice system; the brutality of jailing youth; the existence of alternatives for dealing with conflict, such as Transformative and Restorative Justice; and the need to use money for jobs, education, drug rehabilitation, housing and other social issues to get at the roots of social conflict.

THE DECISION by county officials to reduce the new jail's capacity shows that all this organizing is having an impact.

At his press conference announcing the changes, Dow bent over backwards to claim that county leaders oppose racism: "Racial disparity has no place in our justice system here in King County, especially not in systems responsible for the well-being of our youth."

Dow even spoke of a "paradigm shift" away from imprisonment, and Superior Court Presiding Judge Susan Craighead said, "We need to think of how to create more alternatives to detention."

This talk of a paradigm shift comes directly from the language of jail opponents. But the meaning that the county gives it is different than to what opponents mean. The No New Jim Crow Campaign calls for replacing the jailing of youth with Transformative and Restorative Justice:

Transformative Justice (TJ) is an alternative to jail, prison and punishments whose purpose is to repair damaged relationships, build a collective understanding of why harm and conflict are happening, and encourage healing in individuals and communities so that they can thrive.

The county instead wants to somewhat reduce its reliance on detention, but maintain the same overall system. It hopes that the reduction in jail cells and shift in rhetoric will win over opponents and weaken the movement against the juvenile jail. "We want to work with everyone who wants to work with us," said the County's statement.

While opponents of the jail are encouraged by the county's movement in their direction, they don't see it as the "paradigm shift" that the county claims. Nonetheless, many are hopeful. And they aren't relying on hope alone--they plan to continue the struggle to stop the new jail altogether.

As Mary Patterson said:

No New Jim Crow Seattle will continue to advocate for an exit strategy that gets us to zero detentions...Strong communities are a huge part of the transformation we are working for. Another part is jobs not jails, education not incarceration, affordable housing, transportation and nutrition. Strong communities will be able both to demand and to provide these things, too.

Further Reading

From the archives