“Youth Jail” Opposition to County: “Stop Ignoring Communities of Color”

by Marcus Harrison Green

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in our series examining the impact of King County’s proposed new youth detention center on the South Seattle community. The first one can be read here.

As Seattle’s streets continue to crackle with protests proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” uproar has been rekindled surrounding King County’s plan to build a new youth detention center that critics say will further discount those same lives.

Local organizers – led by the anti-racist group Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) – allege that as the County presses on with plans to erect a new $210 million “youth jail” in the Squire Park neighborhood of Capitol Hill, they have failed to listen to concerns emanating from communities that stand to be impacted the most from its construction.

King County data shows that black youth currently comprise 42% of the County’s juvenile prison population, while accounting for barely 8% of the population at large. It is this gross disproportionality that opponents of the jail claim to be the inevitable result of the County’s habitual failure to acknowledge the deafening cries coming from communities of color. Their pleas are for the County to address structural problems of racism prior to breaking ground on any new prison that would exacerbate those problems.

What appears to some as the County’s fingers-in-ears approach to the proposed detention center has stoked the ire of protesters such as Ardell Shaw, a community organizer with EPIC. I spoke with Shaw – who has spent the past two years organizing against the facility – in the basement of Columbia City’s Damascus Baptist Church while he searched for clothes inside its free store to distribute to needy youth.

After being born to a drug-addicted mother, Shaw was shuffled from foster home to foster home. His primary influences were a succession of temporary guardians, who Shaw says were concerned more with a paycheck than his well being. Shaw spent from the ages of 12 to 18 in and out of the detention ward of the King County Youth Services Center – the building now scheduled for replacement by the new detention center.  Shaw shared what life as an incarcerated youth of color was like. While there, he says he was subjected to “rehabilitative” programs that failed to directly address the unique needs of black and brown children. He also says that the stereotypes of blacks as hoodlums and second-class citizens was constantly reinforced in the literature and films made available to the juvenile population.

Shaw and other organizers view the County’s focus on programs as an ineffective approach for black youth. They also see it as a glaring example of the enduring disconnect between the viewpoint of the opposition, which wants to focus energy on repairing a “broken system,” and the County’s fixation on repairing “broken individuals.”

“People at the County just don’t understand what the average child of color is going through. It’s impossible to fix something when you don’t understand it or you aren’t ready to face it. If the County doesn’t address poverty and racism, they won’t be able to fix the problem and they’ll build more prisons,” Shaw proclaims.

Shaw acknowledges that absolute numbers of incarcerated juveniles has decreased, from over 200 held in the detention center on any given night to just under 60 in the past decade. But Shaw and other organizers say the County’s attitude amounts to “we know what’s good for you, better than you do,” and has been at the heart of policies have been successful only in deterring white youth from re-offending, while abjectly failing brown and black youth, who maintain a stunningly high recidivism rate of 85% and 78% respectively.

“If they were really interested in listening to us, their programs would deal with cognitive thinking, job skills, careers skills, and strengthening strong family bonds. And they’d be present in schools, not prisons, as preventative measures,” states Shaw.

In seeking to obtain the County’s response to the claims that they have willfully ignored voices coming from community members of color, I spoke with King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert. Reaching her by phone as she drove home from a council meeting, she vehemently denied allegations that the County had not been diligent in taking stock of all opinions surrounding the detention center.

“We were very prudent. We have had meeting, upon meeting, upon meeting with the community.  I don’t think we can be more open to public input than we have unless we stopped eating, sleeping, and showering,” says Lambert, who headed up the Master Planning Steering committee for the detention center.

While Lambert acknowledges the glaring overrepresentation of black youth at the current facility, she dismisses the notion that it is an outcome of neglect by the County of communities of color. “I know alot of people who say, ‘Oh there’s disproportionality, and oh you want to lock everybody up,’ and that’s not what’s happening. If you look at the numbers in King County (juvenile) jail, in 99 categories the numbers are going down, and they are because we are focusing on social and mental health services,” claims Lambert.

She points to the fact that during her tenure on the Council, there has been a 50% reduction in juvenile convictions, and also cites the decrease in absolute detention occupancy numbers as underscoring the county’s commitment to reducing total youth crime. Lambert says that though she sympathizes with the intentions of the organizers, she vociferously maintains the stance that no group’s opinion was marginalized in the County’s procurement of public opinion.

I followed up with Shaw about Lambert’s assertions. He expressed concern that the County has misconstrued the opposition’s arguments against the prison, which make them easier for the public to dismiss.

Shaw says while the County claims protesters are advocating against the existence of any juvenile jail, they are actually mobilizing against the building of a brand new $210 million taxpayer-financed facility when the existing building could have been remodeled for a mere $40 million. This is according to the County’s own estimates. The organizers would utilize the additional $170 million on programs that directly addressed systemic racism and to plug the County’s current budget shortfalls.

In discussions with County officials for this article, several – including Lambert – did indeed refer to “people who don’t want any prisons built,” in reference to those protesting against the detention center.

Shaw adds, “Let’s face it, Kathy Lambert’s children aren’t going to be in the jail, nor are any of the children of the other councilmembers. It comes down to business as usual, and those who have money and power are the ones who have a seat at the table.”

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