Roughly 60 people of all ages, genders and colors lined the sidewalks outside Mayor Ed Murray’s house on north Capitol Hill Dec. 20. They were protesting the permit for construction of a new youth jail that many suspected would move forward later in the week.
Their suspicions were confirmed Dec. 22 with an announcement from the Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI). The office announced that, barring an appeal, it would allow the approval of a master use permit “with conditions” that had less to do with the racial disparities of the system and more to do with noise and dust abatement.
Murray tried to get ahead of the release. He put out a statement the morning after the protest noting that the SCDI decision was a technical one, and that he could not legally intervene. But anti-racist organizing groups against the decision, such as Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), saw a political motive behind the release.
Opponents have 14 calendar days to file an appeal, regardless of whether those days are weekends or holidays. To have the decision come out on Dec. 22 meant that the appeal would need to be filed by Jan. 5, a stretch encompassing winter holidays and New Year’s celebrations. The permit has been under inspection since September 2015.
“The decision to build a new jail that disproportionately incarcerates black and brown youth is not technical it is political,” said Bana Abera, a member of EPIC, in a statement. “The decision to pass this permit after months of scrutiny by community, on the eve of Christmas was a political decision to attempt to sneak this past with little to no time to appeal.
“This permitting decision along with the statement by our Mayor is full of cowardice. As Mayor he cannot avoid responsibility for this project, and this jail will be his legacy,” Abera said.
The city’s 17-page decision contained nothing to assuage the protesters, who had staged public protests against the jail twice that week, first at a #NoHateWA rally Rep.-elect Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, launched at the Seattle Center Pavilion on Monday where they shouted down elected officials, and on Capitol Hill the following day.
Runners approached passing cars with informational leaflets, the crowd — banners unfurled, some propping up panels with “No Youth Jail” spelled out in small blue lights — shouted out slogans call-and-response style.
“Not kids’ in-”
There was a rhythm that for some leaders was innate and for others had to be taught, but the protesters rolled with it, collegially passing out cough drops and water for those whose voices became hoarse with use and hot chocolate to defend against the 47-degree weather.
They protested as they have for four years since King County voters narrowly passed a proposition in 2012 approving a tax increase to fund the $210 million Children and Family Justice Center, a building with detention facilities, courthouses and offices that would replace the existing building that officials said had fallen into disrepair.
After the measure passed and the money began rolling in, the youth jail took on the aspect of a juggernaut, picking up momentum as the forces of government removed obstacle after obstacle from its path.
Officials attempted to placate the community, noting the crowded, filthy facilities at the existing detention center, reducing the number of beds from 212 to 112 and creating space for new diversion and rehabilitation programs, which would bring the number of children in the center down even further.
That was not what protesters were looking for.
“Once we decide we can throw away any of the youth, it’s a commitment to the practice of throwing away youth, of giving up on youth,” E. Rose Harriot, an activist who’s been organizing against the youth jail for years, told Real Change in March. “If that building gets built and they build cells for youth, it’s a giant statement in the direction of where we’re going.”
Protesters object to the concept of the jail. They also sued to stop it because of the methods by which it was passed.
The ballot language describes a “facility for juvenile justice and family law services,” but makes no explicit reference to jail, detention or cells. Little wonder, then, that the ballot opposition statement protests only against the resulting increase in property taxes.
That’s not exactly the problem experienced by people of color, whose children are disproportionately incarcerated in the existing juvenile detention facility. According to King County’s own statistics, almost half of the children admitted to the facility were Black, despite the fact that African Americans made up 6.2 percent of the county’s population in 2014.
White children made up only 26.9 percent of the population.
Calls for alternatives to youth detention resulted in an action by the Seattle City Council to commit to zero youth detention in 2015, backed up by a $600,000 grant to EPIC in its 2016 budget.
The City Council renewed that funding in its 2017 budget, but that commitment rings hollow to many who see the construction of the jail as antithetical to the effort to eliminate the incarceration of youth.
Even councilmembers point out the inconsistency.
“Mounting evidence reinforces what communities of color have been telling us for years: jailing youth perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence, makes detainees more likely to re-offend, and disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly black youth,” Councilmember Mike O’Brien said in a statement. “While SDCI has given their technical approval of the plans from a land use perspective, I urge the County to go back to the drawing board to reflect community voices and the commitments we share towards ending youth incarceration.”
O’Brien brings up a critical point: While the Thursday decision means that the permit now can be issued, it doesn’t mean the county has to build the facilities it has envisioned or anything at all. Were it to choose to abandon the project entirely, that $210 million would be sent back to taxpayers, said Cameron Satterfield, communications manager for King County executive services.
The question then becomes whether or not a youth jail is needed, and what form it would take.
Members of the No New Youth Jail coalition argue that incarceration is not the solution, that locking children up makes it more likely that they will be locked up as adults. They stress alternatives to youth detention and restorative justice models, some of which are already in place in King County.
In July, the county launched a pilot project called Family Intervention & Restorative Services, or FIRS. Located inside the existing Youth Detention Center, it gives children a place to cool off and access services after a heated exchange with parents turns violent.
The program diverts kids away from incarceration, helps them make a plan to deal with life at home and sends them back out into the world absent a mark on their record or the internal scars of involuntary lock-up. Since its debut, incarceration for youth because of domestic violence is down significantly, said Alexa Vaughn, a spokesperson for the county.
That number seems dramatic, but it is par for the course in King County’s juvenile detention system, which is seeing fewer and fewer children behind bars than ever before.
In 2016, the average daily population of the youth jail was 57 kids. That’s less than half of what it was in 2003, when the population was at its highest in the 14-year spread in King County’s Detention and Alternatives Report.
On a given day, the detention center might see as few as 27 children, according to a report in The Stranger.
The cost of locking up those kids is twofold: the toll on them, sitting in a facility that may not be structured to fix the problem that it is meant to address, and the financial cost to the citizens.
According to a 2015 report by the Justice Policy Institute, it costs $401 per day on average to put a youth behind bars. When taking into account the amount of time that a young person was incarcerated, 34 states reported spending $100,000 or more on a single person.
The same report estimates that between that price and the cost of services for children who become adults disadvantaged by their time in youth jail, the U.S. spends between $8 billion and $21 billion per year of incarceration.
Right now, activists in King County are focused on the $210 million for the youth jail.
“This battle is not over and we are still demanding #NoNewYouthJail and will see to it that (King County Executive Dow) Constantine and Murray hear us loud and clear,” Abera said. “We are committed to fight this project at every step of the process, until it is cancelled.”