Feb. 18, they walked in a line on East Yesler Way toward 12th Avenue South, chains linking them by the waist, the gray metal popping out against bright orange jumpsuits. A shout of recognition came from the crowd across the street on the lawn outside Bailey Gatzert Elementary School.
“No new!” they shouted.
“Youth jail!” their fellow protesters responded.
“Today is the day King County is trying to open the youth jail,” said one person dressed in a jumpsuit. “We’re here to disrupt that.
“We are demanding they take out the cells. We’ll tear out the cells if we have to,” the figure continued, addressing the assembled protesters. “It will not be a youth jail.”
Community members of the Central District and beyond have been trying to prevent the construction — and now opening — of the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center, which is widely known as the youth jail, since King County voters approved a property tax increase in 2012 to pay for it.
Members of the No New Youth Jail movement argued unsuccessfully that the ballot language was misleading and stated that the money would be used for a justice center, not a jail for young people.
Proponents say the new facility was necessary. The previous building had old pipes carrying dirty water, dingy cells and old courtrooms. The new one offers “yoga behind bars” and “restorative meditation,” its walls adorned with murals and other artwork.
But a beautiful jail is still a jail.
“A few days after being sworn in as a Councilmember, I toured the new facility,” tweeted King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who was present at the protest. “For all the visible efforts made to modernizing the top floors, I was upset to see that the ground floor, where the detained youth would be held, still feels like a standard jail.
“Concrete walls. Small cells. No windows to the outside world within the cells,” Zahilay continued.
According to King County’s Detention and Alternatives Report, the average daily population in youth detention in 2019 was 43 young people. It’s a major reduction from the average of 105 in youth detention in 2006, the earliest date that the report lists, but still a far cry from the “zero youth detention” goal set by the city of Seattle and King County.
Building the new facility — and charging taxpayers to do it — was a betrayal of that commitment, advocates say.
The language of the August 2012 ballot measure read, in part, “The King County council passed Ordinance No. 17304 concerning a replacement facility for juvenile justice and family law services.”
The ballot continued on to say that the nine-year tax would “fund capital costs to replace the Children and Family Justice Center, which serves the justice needs of children and families.”
This language was misleading, groups like EPIC — Ending the Prison Industrial Complex — argued. Since 2012, EPIC and the No New Youth Jail movement, alongside dozens of local organizations, have been fighting to defund and disrupt the project.
One lawsuit led by EPIC, challenging the funding mechanism, made it all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court before justices ruled against them.
Even if the suit had been successful, the county still would have been on the hook for the cost of the facility, officials said at the time.
Between legal delays, project modifications and the rising cost of construction, the project costs inflated from a planned $210 million to an authorized $242 million, according to the county.
That’s hundreds of millions of dollars that won’t go to restorative justice, economic development, youth mentoring and other programs that could prevent youth from ending up in the facility in the first place.
The youth jail, built in the heart of the Central District, Seattle’s historically Black neighborhood, is a racist project that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown young people whose lives can be forever disrupted by the trauma of incarceration, opponents say.
According to a report from the Washington State Center for Court Research, 45 percent of King County juvenile detention admissions in 2017 were Black youth and 20 percent were Latinx, while 4.7 percent were Indigenous. Only 22.3 percent were white.
That year, the overall population of King County was 6.2 percent Black, 9.5 percent Latinx and .7 percent Indigenous. Two-thirds of King County’s 2017 population was white.
Sometimes, youth find themselves incarcerated without having committed a crime.
Called “non-offender admissions,” young people can be incarcerated as a result of “at-risk youth” petitions and truancy petitions. In King County, 11.3 percent of 2017 admissions were young people whose offenses would not be crimes if they were 18 or older, according to a report from the courts.
Incarceration leaves scars, said Edd Hampton as he spoke at the protest. The people in orange jumpsuits and chains were at the front of the march down 12th Avenue, blocked in by a line of police.
“I grew up going here when I was in high school. It was horrible,” Hampton said into a megaphone, gesturing toward the facility. “They could have built something that was anti-jail.
“At the end of the day, we need to shut this shit down and repurpose it,” Hampton said.
Technically, the facility can be repurposed, according to the county. The 112 cells can be refigured to adapt to a changing detention population.
Protesters ended their action in the parking lot in front of the jail. They will be there again on March 18, and every month until the county complies with their demands.
“We’re coming back until this is a true justice center,” a speaker said.
Read the full Feb. 26 - Mar. 3 issue.
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