New King County Detention Center An Albatross For South Seattle Youth?

by Marcus Harrison Green

Editor’s Note: This is our first installment in a series on the redevelopment of the King County Children and Family Justice Building, and its impact on South Seattle families and youth.

Juvy Center
King County Children and Family Justice Building

The words draped from the streetlamp read: Live,Learn, Work, Play. An extended invitation to all who pass underneath the sign – on 12th Avenue and Alder-  to enjoy the vibrant business and entertainment ward housed within its immediate surroundings.

However, as inhabitants scurry  past to imbibe at their favorite watering hole, or indulge their appetites at the nearest neoteric eatery,  it’s often easy for them to ignore the nondescript structure which rest no more than 20 feet away. Though, if the recent firestorm that has ignited over its future is any indication, the days of its obscurity are quite numbered.

“It’s a pure tragedy! That building will be nothing more than a kids for cash operation.” said Otieno Terry –  a local youth and Y.U.I.R (Youth Undoing Institutional Racism) member- in reference to the King County Children and Family Justice Center Building, which will soon be replaced by a new $210 million dollar facility bearing the same name. The development of which has stoked a tremendous amount of controversy in South Seattle for residents fearful over an extreme hike in youth incarcerations.

The impending construction of the new facility is being financed by a 2012 levy initiative passed by 53% of King County voters,which added an additional property tax of 7 cents per $1,000 of assessed land value to area homeowners over a 9 year time frame.

The existing building houses a juvenile detention center, and also serves as King County’s main facility for juvenile court cases, including those involving abuse, neglect, and child abandonment. The structure has not been renovated since 1972  and – according to the County-  has long been overdue for redevelopment.

“We were in a situation where the drinking water had turned brown. There was mold and mildew in the court houses, and our electrical system did not function properly,so that children who were in the housing units had to be provided extra blankets just in order to keep from freezing at night. Our sole motivation for building this new center is to make conditions better for the county and community.” said Claudia Balducci, Criminal Justice Strategy Section Manager for King County’s Office of Strategy and Budget.

But several area Social Justice groups – led by EPIC (End the Prison Industrial Complex) and AFSC (American Friends and Service Committee)-  have aligned to challenge the County’s assertion, as they view the building of the new facility as an action that will directly exacerbate the problem of disproportional imprisonment rates as it pertains to South Seattle minority youth.

While the overall rate of incarcerated King County juveniles has actually decreased in the past few years, by the County’s own data,  the proportion of youth of color: black, hispanic and asian, has actually risen during the same time period. In King County, minority adolescents are currently twice as likely to be placed in a detention center than their non-minority counterparts, despite making up less than 40% of area’s youth population.

“You can’t legitimately tell me that you’re going to build a new detention facility for almost a quarter of a billion dollars and keep it empty! This is a rift on if you build it, they will come. And where will this children be coming from? It won’t be from Mercer island, Bellevue or Magnolia. It will be from Rainier Beach, from Skyway, from Othello and the CD, as it already is.” said Dustin Washington of the AFSC.

The County, however, while acknowledging the persistent racial disparities in youth incarceration rates, maintains that the new building shouldn’t be viewed as an instrument that will further provoke those discrepancies, “I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the new building. It is going to house updated courtrooms, state of the art meeting spaces, and housing that isn’t at all detention oriented, but  is actually used for children who are victims of domestic abuse and have no other place to go. Yes, the detention center will still be a part of the facility,  but we’re actually reducing the number of beds from 200 in the current center,  to only 154 in the new building. Detention space isn’t like commercial real estate where you can create more on an as needed basis, so we have to make sure that we can still accommodate situations as they present themselves.” Says Balducci.

Members of the coalition against the facility say that the reduced number of beds in the detention center is still too many. “Depending on estimates, the average number of children in the detention center on any given night ranges between 54 -70 kids. They’re not even using half of the bed space as it is. No one is saying that they shouldn’t re-model the prison to improve its conditions, but $210 million for a completely new facility? Especially in our current climate where at every level of government, from federal, to our own state and county legislatures, are crying broke. They can’t afford adequate health care, housing or education for everyone in our state, county or city, yet we can afford a youth prison? This money has to be flowing to someone, somewhere.” Said James Williams, a coalition representative.

It’s a question that several area youth have also been asking, including Khalel Lee, an organizer with Y.U.I.R. “You know the importance of priorities by where money is placed. Instead of more money being put into education, they’re put into prisons. Why not take half of the money allocated for the prison and put it into our schools. We need better equipment. We need books that don’t fall apart when you turn the pages. We also need after school programs, and work programs for teenagers. We need things that are more preventive rather than punitive.”

For their part,  the County doesn’t feel that the preventive and punitive can’t go hand in hand. “This doesn’t have to be an either or situation. We agree wholeheartedly that we need to focus more energy, and give more support to preventive measures, but it’s also a reality that there are circumstances where detention is needed.” said Balducci.

She also rejected the notion that construction on the new building would function as a money grab. “Are their going to be contractors who get paid? Yes, of course, someone has to do the work. But,  thankfully we don’t have private prisons in Washington State that are run strictly to turn a profit.”

The issue recently came to its boiling point at a recent community forum held at the 2100 building on 24th Avenue South and hosted by EPIC- Which was attended by Balducci, along with a representative from King County Executive Director Dow Constantine’s Office. Over 200 South Seattle residents showed up to hear arguments for and against the center’s redevelopment, and to see whether any common ground could emerge between the two factions. Unfortunately, neither side appeared to leave contented.

“What continued to be brought up throughout the meeting was, fix broken systems, and not broken people, but I simply don’t see why we can’t do both? We do need to fix the system, I’m not disputing that, as it isn’t perfect. We can’t have a kid who lives in Rainier Beach, and is given a summons to a court out in Federal Way, and yet he has no transportation to get there so he ends up missing it. He then has a warrant issued for his arrest, and then he’s locked up in detention.” Said Balducci. “Are we where we want to be yet? No, but we can get there.”

Voices of the coalition against the prison contend that the county representatives at the meeting offered nothing but a flimsy wall of words in their defense of the facilities construction. “Ms. Balducci seemed like a nice woman, and at least she did get up and speak, which is more than I can say for the representative from Dow Constantine’s office. However, she’s the mayor of Bellevue. Why in the world is she even tasked with speaking to us? If the County had been earnest about getting actual community buy-in about  this project they would have had meetings like this before they sought to build the prison, not after. For such a large allocation of money, you would think that we’d have more serious discussions about it as an entire community, not just with so-called stakeholders that seem cherry picked by the county.” said Washington

One attendant at the meeting echoed the sentiment, “I speak to people and they literally thought that the levy was for parks or something. The lack of education about this issue is astounding, especially as dry as the money spigots appear to be in our area. The detention center needed to be renovated 15 years ago, so why are we fast tracking things now, with very limited discussion with the people, and the families who will directly be affected by this? Why didn’t they speak to a broad group of youth who had been incarcerated and who live in this area? I don’t want my son or daughter, preyed upon and locked up, so they can act as a return of investment on a youth prison.” Said Martin Friedman.
As more groups rally against the building of the facility, while the County simultaneously proceeds with their construction plans, one thing seems certain in all of the resultant murkiness, the discord over this issue remains quite far from over.

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