OPINION: Birth and Rebirth in the Time of No New Youth Jail

by Senait Brown

After King County Executive Dow Constantine committed King County to converting all youth detention units at the Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center to new uses, effectively ending youth detention in the jurisdiction, Senait Brown — a long time No New Youth Jail organizer — penned a letter to her son Malcom about the magnitude of this development.

To My Son (Baby Brutha) Malcolm,

One day you will look back and find the footprints your mother has left behind, and when you look back, I hope you will see the revolutionary fire that sparked my audacity to become a Black mama and bring you into this world. 

I was 25 years old when I became a prison abolitionist and front-line organizer for the No New Youth Jail Campaign, a part of a powerful collective called Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) and Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC). The attraction to the idea that we could stop the practice of jailing Black children was palatable after reading Angela Davis’ book “Are Prisons Obsolete.” After a lifetime of playing by the system’s rules in grammar school, college, jobs in nonprofits, and democratic politics, the angst of having to serve systems that didn’t serve me or mine as a Black person melted away after I attended a YUIR meeting, and I was freed to think of a world without racism, prisons, police, or even institutions.

That call to liberation became even more clear when I realized that to divest from inherently racist institutions like the New Youth Jail, we would have to develop a collective “sense of empowerment” and consciousness in our community, plant seeds, and build and invest in an infrastructure rooted in our own self-determination. That infrastructure is what I look to today to survive and secure our future, Malcolm — everything depends on what we build for ourselves. I wish for you to reap the benefits of African-centered education with Black StarLine and Freedom Schools with YUIR and WA-Bloc; I want you to be fed by the fruits of Nurturing Roots Farm and the flavors of Cafe Avole, to find your body in rhythm with Northwest Tap Connection, find safety in Africatown-Central District, to arm your body and mind with Blaq Elephant Party, innovate at Black Dot, and explore your best thinking at the Black Power Epicenter. When we face the unspeakable challenges of living while Black and the police, schools, hospitals, medical clinics, and government are colluding to take away your life force, I need you to be able to look to a Black Prisoners’ Caucus, a United for Better Thinking, a Creative Justice, a Community Passageways for strategy and refuge — a village to fight for our right to live radical, bold, and Black. 

Right now, as we absorb the delayed revelation of Dow Constantine and King County government to shut down their newly built youth prison by 2025, I call this moment a milestone rather than a win. Our win happened when 25 multiracial youth, led by a network of anti-racist Black folx and supported by a multiracial community of organizers declared “No New Youth Jail!” and set measurements of success for our organizing that were led not by the movement of King County but by the values of organizing for power and Black liberation through an anti-racist framework. 

Right now, we celebrate, not that an institution (i.e. King County) has folded (because we know that institutional power is never stronger than community power), but that OUR measurements of success — honoring and learning from history, maintaining accountability to each other, centering BIPOC culture and reclaiming our humanity, naming and undoing institutional/internalized racism, building a net that works, and ensuring our base grows a sense of their own power — were unapologetically centered in this movement to shut down the New Youth Jail and to implement a reality of “zero use of detention for Black youth” (the original name of the City of Seattle resolution written by YUIR/EPIC by the way). 

The abolition of the prison industrial complex could never and will never be achieved through the processes of an institution or system. Our liberation and your life is dependent on surviving these systems of oppression, planting seeds for our own infrastructure, and investing in what we have built collectively. Asheʼ Asheʼ

Senait Brown is a community organizer. 

Featured image by Vlad Verano.