Last week, The Seattle Times published an opinion piece arguing that the No New Youth Jail movement was “a dangerous fantasy.” Writer Danny Westneat centers his column on a case of murder allegedly involving several youth. He says his issue is primarily that our movement must want murderers to run wild.
On April 20, I participated in a blockade at the construction site of the new youth jail. Nine people, including several clergy, were arrested. In the several interviews I have given since then, everyone asked me about these teens. Clearly there is a fearful narrative in the public sphere that needs to be addressed. My job as a pastor is to unveil (that’s what the theological word “revelation” means) the assumptions upon which fear-based behaviors and structures are built. So here we go.
First, activist Senait Brown tells me that fewer than 1 percent of those who come through the youth jail are connected to murder. If Westneat and others are just worried about murderers, then they should be calling for a jail with five or 10 beds, not more than 100. The discussion about youth incarceration should center on the majority of kids who are harmed, not healed, by incarceration. I don’t know what we should do about that tiny fraction of youth who commit murder, but I do believe that the solutions can only be found by giving greater voice at the table to those most affected by the incarceration system.
If Westneat and others are just worried about murderers, then they should be calling for a jail with five or 10 beds, not more than 100.
Second, youth of color are massively overrepresented in the youth jail population. Black youth make up 8 percent of King County, but, in 2016, comprised 48 percent of the youth jail population. In 2018 the numbers are worse. Westneat’s column fails to even mention race, as though it’s peripheral to the discussion. But Youth Undoing Institutional Racism started the whole thing, and racism is the heart, soul, center and genesis of the movement.
Third, the jail is slated to cost around $230 million. Might those who stand to gain huge profits from this jail be influencing the decisions behind the scenes? The old jail could be refurbished for far less, with the vision of downsizing and phasing it out of use. Note the word “New” in the “No New Youth Jail” movement.
Note the word “New” in the “No New Youth Jail” movement.
The new jail is already going up. The tiny windows in its cinder block construction send a message about how much we want to hide these youth of color from sight and what we collectively believe about their futures. As an aspiring follower of the one who said, “[I am] sent to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:19), I refuse to shrug and accept this system based on fear, racism and profits. Let’s work for something more. No New Youth Jail.
Rev. John Helmiere is the convener of Valley & Mountain.
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