No New Youth Jail: Build the Struggle for Racial Justice

For many months, civil rights activists and community leaders have been organizing against the construction of a new youth detention center in King County. At many council meetings they have clearly articulated how this jail would exacerbate institutional racism in Seattle, and how the $210 million dollars could be spent on better projects than a detention center for children. Nevertheless, on Monday, October 13th, I was the only Councilmember to stand with the community and vote against an ordinance that would facilitate the development of a new youth jail. Check out my speech and read the transcript below.

First I would like to acknowledge that this issue might not seem straight forward to some. We are told that the conditions in the current youth detention center are inhumane and this construction is required to fix that. We are told that this building is more than just a jail; it is used for various youth services as well. I do not want anyone to be in inhumane conditions, and I have had to think very carefully about these arguments.

But the movement against this new youth jail, your movement, who have organized and testified at these council meetings, have answered all of those questions. I would like to share what I have heard from them that has been so convincing, and some alternatives for how $200 million could be spent to provide a better future for the poor and working class youth in our communities rather than locking them up.

First, if inhumane conditions were the only issue, let’s be clear: incarcerating children is inhumane. Beyond that, if King County was proposing minor renovations to improve the conditions, it would be far less money, and far less concerning.

Instead this proposal would rebuild the whole jail. It would build three times as many beds as are currently occupied. There will be a reduction in the total number of beds in existence, but why build so many more than are being used?

Imagine if King County wanted to spend $200 million on jobs for young people. In contrast, Seattle spends a total of less than $5 million a year on all the jobs programs for young people combined. Imagine the impact on crime if a $200 million investment in youth jobs.

And this is in the context of a criminal justice system that is, in general, saturated with racism and disproportionality, and, rather than getting better, is getting worse. The whole system is stacked against black youth. According to King County juvenile detention data, two-thirds of all youth booked in 2012 were people of color. 42% of the incarcerated children in this juvenile detention center are African American, even though they make up only 7.7% of the young people living in King County.

This excellent graph that activists from EPIC, Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, gave to council offices shows that over the last 15 years incarceration rates have become more racially biased not less. Also on this, the first Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Seattle, let us not forget that 1 in 12 Native Americans 10 to 17 year olds were incarcerated in King County were incarcerated in 2013, similarly 1 in 15 black 10 to 17 were incarcerated in King County in 2013. As one of the speakers indicated, if these were the statistics for white youth, we would be talking about an urgent crisis.

So what would it mean if council voted no today. It would not be an empty gesture. We are Seattle’s elected body. We have a duty to take a clear stand on this issue, especially in light of the Race and Social Justice Initiative of the City. If we voted against this, it would send a powerful, reverberating message all throughout the city and country. It would provide a huge burst of momentum to the overwhelming coalition of community organizations which has gathered to oppose this jail. They include: the NAACP; Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC); Washington Incarceration Stops Here (WISH); the Faith Action Network; Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR); No New Jim Crow Seattle; the Black Prisoners’ Caucus; the Gender Justice League; the Not One More Deportation Campaign; Collectivo de Detenido Northwest Detention Center; Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites; and Families FIRST (Friends Involved in Resistance to State Torture); faith leaders; academics; and health care professionals. The broad community has spoken against this.

I have heard from fellow Councilmembers that a no vote will not stop what is going on – yes, there is racial injustice, we need to fight for fundamental solutions, but this is not a good time to vote no. And I hear this refrain over and over again: This is not a good time, not the right time, and that there is some reason why we should not have a sense of urgency. In this context, I want to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “we know from painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”

At the public hearing, a worker from the King County Crisis Line delivered a letter signed by 100 health care professionals. They argued that clustering services around a jail would be extremely detrimental, and alienate those who most need access to them. And I know that activists have given Councilmembers binders full of powerful testimony against the youth jail.

While I oppose this Ordinance, I would like to acknowledge and commend the steps King County has taken to significantly reduce the youth prison population to a quarter of what it once was. I have also signed the letter initiated by Councilmember O’Brien, that was circulated at the beginning of this meeting, because it requests a race and social justice analysis and a further reduction in youth imprisonment. However, I also want to point out that the letter, from the beginning to the end, treats the new youth jail as a fait accompli. I do not agree with that, and I signed this letter with reservations. I would like to warn activists not to be lured into complacency by letters like this, despite the undoubted sincerity of some of the signatories. There is nothing binding about these recommendations, and the movement that I see in this room can stop the new youth jail if the movement can grow sufficiently.

The number of young children, people of color, funneled into the criminal justice system is a crisis for our society. I will be voting no on this ordinance that would allow the plans for the new youth jail to proceed. However, if there was an ordinance to spend $200 million on jobs programs for young people, like Career Bridge, I will be the first to vote yes.

I would like to end by saying that the social changes coming from black people, young black men and women themselves – look at what is happening with #FergusonOctober – is where we should be engaged. We should be building stronger movements.

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