Protestors Won’t Stop Fighting King County’s New Multi-Million Dollar Youth Jail

by Sharon H Chang

When Seattle’s new $242 million youth jail opened Tuesday, the third week of Black History Month, there were already Black and Brown children locked inside. King Country authorities had transferred incarcerated youth from the old facility next door six days earlier. And though Tuesday was a beautiful winter day, the youth could not see the clear skies or enjoy the sunshine outside. The updated jail may be new, but the children’s cells are still small and sterile, windowless and lonely–and still cages.

Rally to Free the Youth!, organized by the No New Youth Jail (NNYJ) Coalition, convened at Bailey Gatzert Elementary late Tuesday afternoon to protest the jail and show support to the incarcerated children. A 3-block march had barely begun when police swooped down Yesler Way and used their bikes as weapons. The officers escalated quickly, yelling and shoving protestors with bicycles, unconcerned with the safety of community and children present at the march. The rally persevered, however, delivering a strong statement against youth detention first in the street and then in the jail parking lot, just as the sun set and blue hour descended.

The day’s events spoke volumes about Seattle and King County, both of which have “Zero Youth Detention” resolutions, but have shown repeatedly they are not actually committed to those resolutions. Especially when it comes to Black and Brown youth.

Parking lot of the The Patricia Hall Clark Children and Family Justice Center. (Photo: Sharon H Chang)

Seattle’s new youth jail, euphemistically called The Patricia Hall Clark Children and Family Justice Center, is located in the Central District’s Squire Park neighborhood . It contains a 92,000 square foot juvenile detention facility with 112 jail cells (with the capacity to incarcerate 146), a 10,200 square foot “youth program space”, and a 137,000 square foot courthouse with 10 courtrooms. It replaces the old youth jail footsteps away. The new facility boasts it is nicer than its predecessor. But a jail is a jail, said NNYJ Member Aretha Basu, who recently toured the updated facility. “No matter what fancy paint color you slap on it,” she said, “it’s still a jail for children.”

The jail has faced widespread community opposition since plans were unveiled in 2012. Leaders and organizations like NNYJ and EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex), have fought a seven-year battle trying to stop it. Over 140 organizations signed a petition to halt construction (including the head of the county’s Department of Public Defense). However, despite years of opposition and extensive research showing youth incarceration has little impact on youth crime, Seattle’s enormous new youth jail now towers over 12th Avenue, a shiny monument to what many see as the city and county’s blatant hypocrisy.

“If the city and county have made a commitment to zero detention,” said Basu, “having a jail like this makes no sense.”

“King County public officials want us to believe they are committed to ‘zero youth detention,’” writes abolitionist, attorney, and former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver for Crosscut. “They want us to believe this as they refuse to invest sufficient amounts of money to actually address the root causes of poverty and systemic racism that force children and families into the criminal legal system and school-to-prison-pipeline in the first place.” Oliver is also a long-time NNYJ Coalition Member. She played an active part in Tuesday’s rally.

Rally outside of Bailey Gatzert elementary school. (Photo: Sharon H Chang)

Rally to Free the Youth! was led by eight core organizers, including Basu and Oliver, chained together and dressed as prisoners in bright orange jumpsuits. Signs pinned to the back of the jumpsuits read “Dow’s Legacy,” referring to King County Executive Dow Constantine, who presides over the new youth jail and has suggested that brief youth detention can be “therapeutic.” “We were doing a theatrical piece that shows what the jail is really about,” said Carly Brook, another organizer who wore a jumpsuit Tuesday, “because the county constantly brands it as something therapeutic.”

Juvenile crime has actually decreased 60 percent over the last two decades because forward-thinking activists and states have replaced jailing with rehabilitative services. Extensive research shows incarceration has minimal impact on juvenile crime and sometimes even increases the likelihood of re-offending. That is because incarceration does not address the root causes that lead young people to jail, such as houselessness, neglect by CPS/the foster care system, or racist policing. Rehabilitative, restorative and transformative services, by contrast, have been shown to dramatically improve outcomes for such vulnerable youth.

Photo: Sharon H Chang

While King County has also decreased the absolute number of youth it incarcerates, these numbers belie the increased disproportion of Black and Brown youth among those incarcerated. For example, according to the county’s own data, youth of color are incarcerated 5.6 times more than white youth. On any given day at King County Juvenile Detention there are 46 youth imprisoned and 82 percent of them are youth of color.

Emily W, a former math teacher of 20 years and CARW Member (Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites) who helped live-tweet Tuesday’s rally, explained the racial disparities in youth incarceration rates. It is true fewer young people are being detained in King County overall, she said. “But the reality is that the disproportionately is actually increasing for Black and Brown youth over time. So, is that a success? No. Is that working? No.”

Photo: Sharon H Chang

Jails hurt young people, especially young people of color, and Tuesday’s rally only drove that point home. When NNYJ Members in jumpsuits, mostly youth of color, tried to walk just three blocks from the school to the jail (a critique of the county’s continued investment in the school-to-prison pipeline), they were met with immediate police aggression. Basu was rammed by handlebars several times. NNYJ Member Robert Gavino was pushed to the ground where he fell on his face and his hand bled after trying to catch himself.

Protestors could not go any further because the police created a bike blockade. Circling up on 12th Avenue, just short of the jail, a young person of color read names of incarcerated youth, including their race and length of time incarcerated. Protestors became visibly upset, many crying. When Oliver took the bullhorn, her voice broke. “You say you lock people up for public safety,” she said, turning to the police blockade, “but the only public safety threat I really know is y’all…It’s painful and I’m so tired of living in it.” Oliver asked, ““Y’all think I want to spend my free time helping young people figure out how to do better in a place that won’t even build them housing but will build them a jail cell?”

Nikkita Oliver (hand raised) speaks with SPD officers (Photo: Sharon H Chang)

Rally to Free the Youth! ended in the new youth jail parking lot. There, NNYJ Members in jumpsuits, one-by-one, took off their jumpsuits and chains and hung them on the chain-link fence bordering the jail’s gigantic southern wall. The jumpsuits, with “Dow’s Legacy” facing outward, would be left on the fence for all to see. Brook says the rally was both powerful and painful. Basu agreed. “I’m proud of our action. It was beautiful,” said Basu. “But I wish we didn’t have to do this kind of shit.”

That said, NNYJ is not giving up even though the youth jail is now built. After seven long years, they still have hope. The Coalition’s new demand is to immediately shut down the building’s incarceration capacities and repurpose the facility for community use. NNYJ wants the millions of dollars that will be needed to maintain the jail to be reallocated to school programs, housing subsidies for families, quality mental health services, and arts programming. “We want the young people currently trapped in this system to know they are not alone, and that we are still fighting to get them free.”

Photo: Sharon H Chang

NNYJ invites the community to join them at their next solidarity day, March 18, 2020. Details to follow at No New Youth Jail Seattle.

 Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer, and award-winning writer. She is the author of the acclaimed book Hapa Tales and Other Lies  that reflects critically on her Asian American, Mixed Race, and activist identity through the prism of returning to Hawai‘i as a tourist. She lives in the Columbia City neighborhood. 

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