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Seattle organizers pressure officials to downsize youth jail

Young people have been at the forefront of efforts opposing a new juvenile detention facility.  Photo: Seattle / AFSC
Events like the People's Tribunal helped organizers form a multi-generational coalition.  Photo: Seattle / AFSC
Seattle People's Tribunal
Organizers worked to educate the public about the proposed facility.  Photo: Seattle / AFSC
AFSC's Dustin Washington (right) is the director of AFSC's Seattle Community Justice Program.   Photo: Seattle / AFSC

Thanks to three years of intense pressure by anti-racist organizers, officials in Seattle have announced significant changes to a proposed $212 million juvenile detention center. But organizers, who are working closely with AFSC’s Seattle Community Justice Program, have pledged to continue developing community-based anti-racist alternatives to detention.

In March, officials announced plans to:
• reduce the number of allotted beds at the King County juvenile detention center by 40 (which represents a third of the original number),
• stop incarcerating youth for status offenses like truancy, and
• cut incarceration for probation violations by 50 percent.

Officials also plan to devote more resources to efforts that would keep youth out of jail and begin to counter the disproportionate effect of detention on youth of color in King County.

“I think this is a great start, but often measures like these are used to pacify organizers and slow down our momentum,” says Khalil Lee Butler, who’s active with two AFSC-related projects organizing against the detention center: YUIR (Youth Undoing Institutional Racism) and EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex). “They’re cutting down the number of beds, but they’re still building the jail and they’re still locking up kids.”

Youth lead the way

Young people have been at the forefront of organizing efforts against the detention center. And they’ve built a multi-generational coalition with events such as the recent People’s Tribunal on the Juvenile Justice System.

Early on, organizers understood that they needed to educate the public. The ballot for the detention center passed in 2012, but the language was misleading.

“It said a lot about healing services. There was no mention of ‘cells’ or ‘jail’ or ‘detention’,” Khalil recalls. “Many people didn’t realize what they had voted for.”

Organizers also used statistics—and the stories behind those statistics—to make their case. For example, while black youth account for about 10 percent of the youth population in King County, they make up close to 50 percent of incarcerated youth. “But people hadn’t been connecting those numbers to actual people and families,” Khalil says. “We spent a lot of time bringing those people and voices to light.”

He adds: “Once the education happened, momentum against the detention center picked up quickly.”

Developing skills as organizers

Another key to their success so far has been the careful skill building that starts with the Tyree Scott Freedom School. Since 2001, this annual gathering has provided community leadership training and anti-racism organizing skills to more than 1,200 young people.

Youth then continue learning and using their skills through YUIR, and eventually “graduate” to more intensive organizing through EPIC.

Their organizing against the detention center has gotten significant media attention, with multiple stories appearing in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, the South Seattle Emerald, The Seattle Globalist, the Seattle Channel, and Seattle Voices, among others.

Up next is the summer Freedom School, where more youth will be introduced to the basics of anti-racist organizing and the ongoing work to stop the building of the youth detention center.

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