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Bringing home our youth

In Chicago, young people are demanding the release of young people in detention—and calling for investments in their futures instead.

Youth organizers shout out to young people in the juvenile detention center. Photo: Isiah ThoughtPoet  Photo: Isiah ThoughtPoet Veney / AFSC

Last month, dozens of young people and community members demonstrated in front of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) in Chicago. We were there to show love to youth incarcerated in the building. We wanted to let them know that we were there—and that we wanted them home with their families and loved ones where they belong. NOT locked up in a detention center before the holidays.  

That night, little drops of rain fell on our crowd. The wind blew. “Bang, boom, bang, boom” was the sound of fists pounding on the windows. Looking at the building—half of the windows dark, half lit up—we could see hands waving, little heads looking down at us. Those were our youth, our babies, our family.  

Right now, about 150 youth ages 10 to 16 years are detained at JTDC. These are young people who are awaiting adjudication of their cases. The facility also holds youth who have been transferred from Juvenile Court jurisdiction to Criminal Court.  

Today, young people in Chicago and across the country are organizing under the call to #FreeThemAll. We’re calling for the release for all people from incarceration—and demanding investments in our communities instead.

 The author, Alicia Brown, speaks to the crowd. Photo: Isiah ThoughtPoet Veney

In 2020, the state of Illinois spent $111 million incarcerating young people. Instead of locking up people, the state and city should invest our tax dollars in housing, education, health care (including mental health services) and other resources that actually benefit our communities.  

Like all forms of incarceration, Black and brown youth are disproportionately impacted. At JTDC, 83% of youth are Black.  

There, they face harsh, unsanitary conditions, which is especially dangerous in a pandemic. Youth are isolated, have no access to education or programs, and often face harassment by guards.  

Being locked up in this facility exacerbates stress and trauma many already experience. Many of the young people locked in the detention center are there precisely because they have been failed by generations of economic divestment. Many have experienced food insecurity, homelessness, violence, and taking on caregiving roles in their families.  

All young people deserve to have the resources they need to thrive. But right now, our government is wasting tax dollars on criminalizing and incarcerating them instead. Imagine how much youth would benefit if we directed that money to things like mental health services, housing, counselors, and schools?   

As we push for these changes, young organizers on the outside are making sure youth in detention know that we are here for them. Our event last month was part of our annual “Loud & Lit Up” event, organized by The Final 5 campaign, together with AFSC and the Chicago Freedom School.  

That night, we held big illuminated signs that read “FREE THEM ALL.” We blasted loud music from our speakers, screamed, chanted, danced, waved, and showed love to our youth. They looked down at us from their cell windows and responded, communicating with us by banging on the windows. I felt the love, I felt the compassion, I felt them. I just know they felt us, too.  

It’s beyond time that we free all youth from incarceration—and invest in resources our communities need. 

Photo: Isiah ThoughtPoet Veney

Will you join us in the fight? Here are a few ways you can help:   

Sign Final 5 campaign’s petition. Urge the governor of Illinois to close all youth prisons and stop the construction of a new youth prison in Lincoln. 

Follow our campaign online, and support us when we make noise, rally, and show up where the elected officials responsible work.  

Endorse our campaign, by getting your organization to sign on our priorities and join us for the long haul.  

Let’s make a change! 

About the Author

Alicia is the inaugural Michael McConnell Peace with Justice Fellow with AFSC in Chicago. She is a restorative justice practitioner, circle keeper, and abolitionist. She enjoys writing and was recently published in the “Envisioning Justice Curricular Concepts Resource Guide, Incarcerated Mothers: Illinois Humanities” (2019). Additionally, she performs pieces that she has written.

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