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San Francisco Joins National Push to Abolish Youth Prisons

t’s happening in Minneapolis. New Jersey. Arkansas. Upstate New York. Durango, Colorado. One by one, juvenile prisons are closing, or are slated to close, in response to child abuse reports, sustained pressure from activists and a halving of national juvenile confinement rates since 2002.

San Francisco is on the verge of joining the national trend, following decades of organizing led by Black and Brown activists, and a San Francisco Chronicle report that documented stable spending on its juvenile prison, despite a 50 percent decrease in its population since 2011.

On May 16, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted eight to three — a veto-proof majority — to advance legislation that would close the city’s youth prison (“Juvenile Hall”) by 2021. A sponsor of the bill, Shamann Walton, who spent time in Juvenile Hall when he was a child, aims to close youth prisons altogether. Some on the board have framed their arguments in economic terms. Bill co-sponsor Hillary Ronen told a local CBS station that, in regard to the prison, the city was spending an enormous amount of money on an “ineffective system.”

A legislative committee will hear the full proposal on June 4. If it passes, Juvenile Hall, open since 1950, will shut its doors.

Young Women’s Freedom Center (YWFC), an Oakland-based “power and opportunity-building organization” comprised predominantly of women and gender-nonconforming people from the community who have been homeless and/or incarcerated themselves, played a key role in bringing this issue front and center. Jessica Nowlan, YWFC’s executive director, told Truthout that the group launched a campaign, held planning meetings and eventually met with the board to collaborate. She wondered, “How can we redirect these resources [spent on the jail] back to our communities?”

At the age of 13, Nowlan herself was incarcerated for shoplifting. Ensnared in the system, she returned 17 or 18 times. “If you are standing in one of the ‘pods’ and there aren’t young people there, you cannot tell if it’s a maximum security prison, or a juvenile hall,” she said. “Young folks are in their cells, disconnected from their families and communities. You can’t rehabilitate or support a young person in their transformation with violence. Locking a young person in a cell and isolating kids from their families and their communities is a form of violence.”

In 2018, 66.7 percent of confined children in San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall were Black, while 5.5 percent of the city is Black. Throughout the entire year, four white children were confined. Although the United States’ youth incarceration rate has dropped by about 50 percent over the past 18 years, the disparity between Black and white incarcerated youth has increased. And while juvenile prison populations have been declining, roughly 50,000 youth are still confined in the U.S.

Children behind bars often experience harsh baseline conditions of confinement, including drab days in a tiny cell and metal slabs for beds. Emotional support is lacking, to say the least.

“My sister died when I was incarcerated, and a counselor opened the door to tell me my sister died. Then he locked me back up. How could that ever be supportive for young people, who we already know are going through so much trauma?” Nowlan told Truthout.

One in 10 incarcerated children reported being sexually assaulted in a youth prison as of 2012. The jail in Durango County, Colorado, abruptly shut down after reports of widespread child abuse. Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice staff was caught arranging fights among the children, and bribing them to beat up one another.

Still, there are critics of San Francisco’s ordinance to close the youth prison. San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance appear to be two of the harshest. Breed argued it is “irresponsible” to close the facility without a replacement plan. Nance similarly argued in his letter to supervisors, “Closing the existing facility without a clear alternative denies marginalized, disenfranchised and vulnerable youths the very interventions collectively designed to meet their needs.”

But even if the San Francisco legislative committee votes in favor of closing the facility, there may still be a fight to wage for groups like YWFC. The ordinance proposes to establish a working group to develop a Juvenile Hall closure plan. The group’s task would be to “expand community-based alternatives to detention, and provide a rehabilitative, non-institutional place or places of detention,” according to the legislation. A skeptic might read this to mean that the task, in part, is to coordinate plans for a smaller youth prison with more programming.

Erica Meiners, professor at Northeastern Illinois University and a co-editor of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences Working Toward Freedom, sees swapping a larger prison for a smaller, “kid-friendly” prison as a “flawed and reactive response that create bigger problems in the long run. If we are using our tax dollars to build infrastructure and to create policies and institutions, let’s be proactive.”

A somewhat parallel scenario has played out in Seattle, Washington. Seattle’s juvenile prison was crumbling, and its incarceration rates dwindling. In 2012, the county passed a $210 million tax levy to replace its juvenile prison with a facility that “serves the justice needs of children and families.” Many community members didn’t realize they’d been duped into funding another juvenile prison until years later. If residents had been fully informed of the State’s intentions, the levy never would have passed, activists have said. In 2016, End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) sued Kings County for using misleading ballot language to fund a new youth prison. However, the State Supreme Court ruled against EPIC in January 2019, saying that the group waited too long to file a lawsuit.

In 2016, Seattle began construction of the prison, dubbed the “Children and Family Justice Center,” despite years’ worth of traffic-blocking protests and a 2015 City Council resolution that endorsed a vision of Seattle as a city with “zero youth confinement.” The new facility will detain up to 112 children, and contains several “pods,” which are gendered dormitory areas containing clusters of cells. Judges in Kings County reject framing the new facility as a prison, with one citing its natural light, medical and dental center, gym, library and garden space.

“These resources and services should be offered to communities and families in a real world, not parceled out only in lock up,” Meiners said. “Why not [offer] access to affirming health services in communities and schools, not just in a kid-friendly prison?”

Despite the struggle in Seattle, the outlook for abolishing youth prisons in the foreseeable future looks surprisingly bright. Even some former and current corrections officers are calling for the closure of youth prisons under the banner of “Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice.” However, so far nationally, closures tend to accompany plans for the creation of “kid-friendly prisons.”

YWFC and Nowlan acknowledge that the fight to truly abolish youth prisons “is a long game, not a sprint.” Nowlan added, “That’s how freedom and liberation works. This is one important step in a long-term fight.”

Ella Fassler

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