Debating the Youth Jail With Dow Constantine

by Nikkita Oliver

Monday, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that he would participate in a debate on the Seattle Channel regarding the building of a new children’s jail. This announcement did not say against whom the debate would be, but it did say that he had accepted it. I, Nikkita Oliver, had not yet responded to the request for an interview from the Seattle Channel at the time of his announcement.

Upon response to the request, I was made aware that it was the debate to which Executive Constantine had already announced. Executive Constantine’s announcement and acceptance of this debate comes after weeks of pressure from local organizers and a Court of Appeals decision which may result in King County having to pay back millions of dollars to taxpayers for illegally acquiring the funds to build a new children’s jail in King County.

For the past six years we have been organizing to be heard; to have our experiences, as those most brutalized by mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, not simply acknowledged but understood as vital to any conversation about transformation of the criminal legal system. We are those whose families and communities are routinely over-policed, prosecuted and subjected to the most brutal practices and outcomes the criminal legal system can produce in the name of justice.

So in the name of justice we have been organizing and asking Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King County not to build a new youth jail, but to instead to work with us, those communities most negatively impacted by racism and the criminal legal system, to develop an effective and innovative alternative to the punitive and traumatizing system of criminalization and incarceration of children in King County.

Over the past six years, we have been overlooked and ignored — even demonized in the media and by city and county officials. As a result, we have had to organize our community, protest, and file successful lawsuits to be heard. After six years, King County Executive Dow Constantine, who has pushed full steam ahead on building a $233 million children’s jail, despite public outcry and social science, finally wants to meet with us and participate in a “debate” on the Seattle Channel with me.

Executive Constantine has not participated in a single forum led by those most impacted by the building of the new children’s jail, and yet is willing to participate in a 30-minute “debate” with me which is to be filmed in-studio with no audience for “Inside Out” a Seattle Channel show hosted by Brian Callanan. After much thought and conversation with other organizers, I will participate in the Seattle Channel debate if King County Executive Dow Constantine will participate in a public community forum with me, similar to what one would participate in during an election. This forum is to be accessible to the public and a space where young people of color, those who stand to be the most impacted by the building of this new children’s jail, ask us questions.

Executive Constantine is a public servant — elected by the people for the people — and yet has refused to account for his political decisions to those who stand to be most harmed by the building of this children’s jail. Even more, his lack of willingness to engage all communities, including those with whom he may be uncomfortable, has created an inaccessible and inequitable situation further contributing to racial inequity and disproportionality in King County.

I have no doubts in my ability to effectively communicate in an accessible and thought-provoking manner the problems and long-reaching implications of this project. Even more, I know I can communicate a vision for effective alternatives and investments in services and strategies which keep youth out of the criminal legal system for good.

However, this is much more than a thought exercise. The building of this new children’s jail does real-time harm to many Native, black and brown youth, children and families in King County. The continued investment in the racist punitive system stands in direct opposition to our ability to establish a system which is truly rehabilitative and restorative. Imagine if we invested more into building alternatives than into preserving the current punitive system? Imagine if we invested $233 million into the neighborhoods and families we know are most impacted by racism and poverty?

To “debate” a highly visible black mixed queer womxn for 30-minutes in studio with no audience does not count as community engagement, accountability, nor transparency; especially after six years of avoiding any real public forms. If I participate in this debate but do not push for more accessibility for those most impacted I become complicit in a system, county, and city which often prioritizes the theory and discussion of justice over the actual act of being just and in right relationship with those who bear the weight of historical and present-day systemic injustices.

Executive Constantine and Seattle Channel I am willing to participate in the debate if:

  • The in-studio debate is made available online in its entirety
  • Any cut or edit made to the debate is only for the sake of time restrictions and these cuts are shaved directly off the end
  • I am able to bring with me two advisors and someone to film the in-studio debate to ensure fidelity of the recording presented to the public
  • Executive Constantine participates in a community forum as described above

In the political realm “closed-door discussions” continue to be the way in which many deals are made — a practice which only serves to further marginalize already disenfranchised communities. We must expect more from our elected officials. We must expect them to be present, accessible, transparent, and accountable; especially when making a decision that we know based on social science have a high likelihood of doing harm.

3 thoughts on “Debating the Youth Jail With Dow Constantine”

  1. “… develop an effective and innovative alternative to the punitive and traumatizing system of criminalization and incarceration of children in King County.” When that is done, then we can close the jail. But Ms. Oliver has yet to suggest an evidence-based alternative that gets better results in terms of public safety. That should not be hard, since the current Youth Jail (and prisons in general) perform so poorly in reforming people so they don’t victimize people again. In the 959 words above, we see no suggestion of what that alternative would look like and what evidence there is that it would work better.

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