Q&A: With Plans for the New Youth Jail to Be Built in 2019, Protesters Continue to Fight Against It

by Leija Farr

Despite overwhelming backlash from anti-youth jail protesters, King County continues to push forward with the construction of a youth facility in the Central District. The new King County Juvenile Detention Center is a $210 million project set to open in 2019. This project has been a hot-button issue around politics in Seattle for many years.

Back in 2012, voters approved funding for this project, reconstructing a youth jail built more than five decades ago. In the time since, the outcry from the No New Youth Jail organization has only grown. Opponents to the plan have remained consistent in their mission: to stop the cycle of youth of color becoming incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, to explore alternative options for the youth outside of jail, and to address the effects incarceration has on the mental health of young people.

In 2017, the University of Washington’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences offered a review with architectural proposals for the new youth jail. It included fewer beds (from 124 to 92) to account for the decreasing inmate population and the elimination of truancy beds, which hold kids missing extensive numbers of school days. While these changes may seem captivating to outsiders, the NNYJ campaign still feels it’s not enough.

A recent NNYJ report found that county officials sent internal emails stating that the existing jail would continue on with construction, without much input from the  community. It also stated there would be inside attempts to silence opposition, in complete contradiction to King County Executive Dow Constantine’s affirmations to the public of a collaborative effort within the city to end youth detention.

With this report serving as added fuel for protesters, they fight even harder for the plans of a new youth jail to vanish, cease to exist.

Devan Rogers, an organizer with the NNYJ campaign since they were a teen, spoke with me on the ways they work tirelessly to make King County understand the severity of this decision, pivotal moments in the movement and what still needs to be done.

Leija Farr: Why do you think it’s so hard for our city see the devastation and destruction that would take place in the youth if a new jail was built?

Devan Rogers: Our city is very, very, very, very white. It is no doubt hard to see why the jail is going to devastate the youth, because when you look at the statistics, it’s not white youth that are filling those beds in the jail disproportionally.

Of course their are white youth being locked up, but of the 7-10% black population that still can somehow afford to live in Seattle, more than 30-40% of those incarcerated are black people. This is the problem. Black communities are not only being over policed, they are being pushed out of their communities that their families have been living in for decades.

If a new youth jail is built, what are we telling black youth? If our cities crime rates are getting lower and lower, who do they expect to fill the jail? Who is suppose to fill their pockets if the jail is empty? Who gets favorable sentencing (community service instead of incarnation for example) when they are speaking too, most likely a white judge? Jails don’t work if no one is locked up, regardless of the crime rate, our justice system will find a way to lock black children in cages.

LF: What has the evolution of the NNYJ campaign looked liked?

DR: This isn’t the first time Seattle has said “No” to a new youth jail. They tried to rebuild the youth jail in the ’70s, and were successful in stopping that project.

Of course in 2012 when the ballot was sent out to voters (Voter turnout was very low that year) and wrote that they wanted $210 Million Dollars to the new “Youth and Family Justice Center,” members of Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) started to focus their programming that year on the School-to-Prison Pipeline, later that same year starting EPIC, Ending the Prison Industrial Complex.

There were already many other orgs and people who were organizing against the jail at that time, but something that was different about YUIR and EPIC doing this work was the fact that it was a multi-generational, Black led effort.

While we had many people of different backgrounds supporting and working with EPIC to spearhead the campaign, we were very clear that this work needed to be led by the most impacted: Black people, formerly incarcerated people, people whose families have interacted with the system.

YUIR and EPIC are also in the network of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an organization that was started in New Orleans by two Black men, and will be celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2020. The PISAB organizes very clearly through Anti-Racist principles, principles that have led this NNYJ campaign to where we are today in 2018.

A very clear moment that has defined what our evolution as a campaign was in 2015 when EPIC hosted the People’s Tribunal for Juvenile Justice. For context, a tribunal is similar to a court trial, were someone is being tried for a crime, but I instead of the government persecuting someone, it is usually a community of people.

For this event, we went around and subpoenaed the school board, council members, juvenile judges, people who were directly going to be involved with getting this jail built, or in some way had a chance to stop the building of the jail.

Three to four months worth of planning went into this event, securing the space at Seattle University, fundraising to help feed people at the event and to cover other expenses, connecting with our community who were actually impacted by this system, planning who in our group of maybe 15 to 30 people was going to be in charge of what aspect of the event, etc.

Something really powerful that had happened however, was our need and ability to shift focus. About two to three weeks before the tribunal, we had a meeting and in that meeting we started to look deeply at the process that we had underwent to create this event.

It wasn’t the first event that EPIC has hosted on the jail, but it was by far the biggest one we had planned. Over 500 people had RSVP’d to attend, so you think almost a month away we would stick to the plan right?

Well what we did surprised a lot of people. We had noticed the whole time we were planning for this event, we were not focusing on the most impacted. Even our seating layout, we have the people who we subpoenaed in the front of the room, while everyone who was working on the event and community members who had actually been through the juvenile system were now the ones doing the persecuting. We were replicating what the system does to people, and when we made that clear, we decided to shift our plans.

Three months of hard planning and work changed in one meeting, because we decided that we needed to recenter ourselves and our principles, and not focus on the city and county council and the judges etc., but instead focus on the people who had actually went through the juvenile justice system. All of a sudden our 500+ chairs were being set up into a giant circle, and in the inner ring was our judges, members of the community, survivors of the juvenile justice system. We decided to center their stories and their lives.

From that event came the People’s Plan for Community Justice, a plan that was spearheaded by Senait Brown and Dr. Gary Kinté Perry. The People’s plan has to do with building up our own institutions, while also working on dismantling the ones that oppress us. The founder of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party, Aaron Dixon, told the youth of YUIR to spend 25% of our energy dismantling the systems, and the other 75% building something else up to replace it when it is gone.

LF: Has being a part of this movement helped sharpen your political knowledge?

DR: I first joined YUIR when I was 16, and the amount of growth and unlearning I have had to do since joining has been monumental. When I joined I was a teenager who thought I knew so much about the world because of what I have learned in school. I joined YUIR and essentially found out that mostly everything I have learned was probably a lie, and that the things that I have learned subconsciously about myself were holding me back from having genuine relationships.

LF: What have been some pivotal moments in the movement?

We have been working on this campaign for almost seven years now, and of those seven years I think many of the organizers in EPIC were going non-stop for a good five years. Meeting every week, for hours and hours and hours on end, strategizing and planning and emailing and calling and building relationships with people, while also juggling work, school, family, mental and physical illness, and many other normal life things that people have to endure.

A pivotal moment for me, and I know many others can resonate, is when I decided to take a break. I needed my body and mind to rest, the amount of Black Death that is broadcasted, with the looming weight and guilt of Black children being locked in cages nearly broke me. I was lucky to survive, because many people who do this work don’t. When we learned to set our boundaries, we grew stronger as a collective. I was very lucky however, because we know that capitalism doesn’t allow us to take breaks.

I however, had the privilege of being able to step away, but that doesn’t mean that the work stopped. Many people still had to hold down EPIC and the NNYJ campaign when others dipped out. It is for them that we have a responsibility to continue this work, and a responsibility to exercise creating boundaries, because we cannot let our community burn out, we cannot let black womxn hold down space by themselves. We need to take care of each other to survive, we are all we got!

LF: How can the community help towards the overall goal of the campaign?

DR: White people need to talk to their white families about the jail. About power, about money, about the politics behind this seven-year-long battle. The common question that people ask me when I tell them I am a prison abolitionist is, “Where will all the murderers go?” While it is hard for me to give an answer to that question, I think that we all have to start thinking critically about the circumstances that lead up to violent crimes (ex: how people were brought up, the access to resources they may or may not have, trauma from the United States, etc.)

Also most black people who are locked up aren’t in for violent crimes, they are in for non-violent drug offenses, AKA Reagan and Nixon’s plan to lock black people up is working.

Also, the one person who can stop the Youth Jail now at this point is Dow Constantine, the County Executive. And for whatever reason (most likely capitalism and White Supremacy) Dow refuses to stop the building of the jail. He needs pressure, from white people. White people with capital especially, so call your rich grannies and uncles and get to work.

Featured photo by Aaron Burkhalter.