By Teah, WISH member
I had no idea what to expect upon arrival at the juvenile detention facility for the “open house” as it was billed. I was expecting to be shown around, hopefully able to see for myself these decrepit conditions that require a $210 million expenditure for all new, much larger facilities, probably with a facilitated question and answer session of some sort. Following handing out some of our fliers showing really egregious statistics of those incarcerated in the facility and getting hassled by nervous looking security guards, the Facilities Director came outside to chat with us. It was during this initial conversation that I was introduced to the themes of the day: I have nothing to do with that-you should talk to this other person about that issue, everyone here really cares about these youth just like you, and we are already doing a really good job getting numbers down and we are really proud of ourselves.
Once through the metal detector I was able to get inside the small area that this event was actually to take place in. In every direction there were various groups that have something to do with the functioning of the juvenile detention system in KingCounty. There were court appointed advocates, representatives of various programs that take place within the juvie, alongside large diagrams showing the way the lot in question at 12th and Alder will be partitioned off and sold in bits to as yet undefined (or maybe just un-disclosed) developers. Amid the different groups’ fliers and tri-fold display set-ups, there were signs detailing actual numerical steps for how to have a “Healthy Dialogue”. I assumed these signs were in place to direct the youth that have meetings with their lawyers in that large open area (a fact I learned in the course of the day), until I saw these signs being taken down at the end of the event! These signs were there for us! Honestly with all the poster-board this event was set up more like a high school science fair than a real open forum to discuss anything substantive together with the ability to get answers. Everyone was dealt with as individuals which seemed to make evading having to give legitimate answers more easy, since they could constantly deflect us to another person. It is very important to understand this event for what it was, an attempt to look like the county is getting “community input” on this project. That is total BS, especially when the statistical breakdown of who all was in there was something like 65% staff at the juvie/25% WISH/10% non-WISH community members.
Once inside I never really had a solitary moment. People were approaching me consistently for the whole three hours as they seemed to be actively employing an outreach strategy to appear open. It was eerie. Throughout the course of the day I spoke with 4 judges, the Facilities Director and the Director of Juvenile Court Services. I will minimally separate these individual interactions because each conversation I had went roughly the same way.
Questions I asked everyone I spoke to, and their answers:
Why is there such racial disparity in arrests, level of crime charged with, sentencing and incarceration rates for youth of color?
Every single person I spoke to immediately admitted that they knew of the statistics and that they were indeed horrible. Lots of hand wringing. At the beginning I would then ask “What is being done to address that?” To which the inevitable answer would be some form of deflecting personal responsibility. One judge would blamed mandatory sentencing guidelines, another let me know that they are not in charge of what individuals are charged with and that in order to address that it would actually be the King County Prosecutor that should be contacted, not them. Others just plain pushed me off onto another person in the room who was “THE person to talk to about that”, but whom never actually was. Some told me of horror stories where it was even worse in other parts of Washington, trying to create a false comparison. Or they would bring up some self-congratulatory fact. Or most annoyingly I got the wink wink, nudge nudge info that one of the judges used to be a public defender so they totally get it. As the day went on and my frustration grew at having ALL my questions dodged, I started to ask them more pointedly about what their individual contribution to changing the disparity was if they knew about it? I got excuses like – I am a judge and I have certain limitations to what I can say or do. To which I replied that they do not have to send a statement on their letterhead out, but that they should have personal conversations with people who can actually do something about it. I reminded them that in this instance they have more power than any of us average community members did and they needed to exercise this power. You know wink wink, nudge nudge, since you get it right?
Had a similar conversation with the Director of Juvenile Court Services, same everything. I know about the statistics, they are horrible, my job can not directly effect those statistics. He mentioned diversity training classes, though he did not know who taught them beyond “some really great facilitators”. One really gross example he did actually give of trying to address the disparity was within the Somali community in KingCounty. According to him, in Somalia when you call the police, they come out to your house and act more as mediators who actually try to assess the issue and help resolve it. For new immigrants to the United States who are used to that, they call the police here with totally incorrect assumptions about what is going to happen when the police show up. Here, they are going to arrest your child or you! And don’t forget the added stress of being an immigrant and having any sort of interaction with law enforcement potentially turn into “cause” for a removal hearing proceeding, for you or your child! He told me about this, and about how they are doing outreach in those communities to better inform these Somali people what will happen. Essentially encouraging those people NOT TO CALL THE POLICE!!! I told him this sounded like victim blaming to me and why wasn’t he taking this issue up with the police themselves. Can you guess what he said? He said that wasn’t his job. Grrrr. Sick of this sham/pretend celebration that programs are working, but we are going to make a bigger youth jail anyway; I let him know that as a person who knew of the racial disparities in every category, it was up to him as a human being to call out racist behavior when he saw it by the police and others. He looked sort of freaked out and I continued that it was not going to make him popular, but it had to be done and I did not care if it was technically his job, it was all of our jobs! I know he won’t do anything differently, I just couldn’t listen anymore.
Why are there 154 beds planned for the new facility when the numbers of imprisoned youth are actually decreasing consistently?
I consistently got the stock answer of how there needs to be flexibility to move people around inside. There are divisions that must be made based on gender, potential conflicts with other imprisoned youth etc etc. We have to be able to segregate these youth effectively. The facilities Manager encouraged me to get in there and share my ideas with everyone else, and said it was not a “done deal yet”. Only one person, a judge, admitted that they did not know why so many beds were needed. They also told me that they had recently been to a visioning meeting where people were brainstorming about the new facility, and that some people there were trying to get some of the money actually put back into programs. Let me be clear. NONE of this $210 million is allocated for actual programs, it is for the facility ONLY.
What is so bad about conditions here? Why is there need for a $210 million expenditure?
Each person again gave me the same examples: mold, bursting pipes and a broken HVAC system that is “too hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter”. When questioning the Facilities Manager about it , I asked her why the county was not instead going to just upgrade the aging systems and why it was that a new actual detention facility with 154 beds was needed too (especially given that the day of the open house there were only 43 youth in the facility!)? She referenced some official report where they had crunched the numbers and said they found that it would cost $23 million dollars over the next 10 years to keep the facility running as is (she said not to quote her on that exact amount, I am currently following up with her to get a copy of whatever she was referencing, more info to follow soon) and she totally dodged the bed part of the question by encouraging us to go offer our community input to those inside.
Another person told me about how awful it was on the siblings of youth involved in the proceedings of the court there to be in such horribly cramped and hot or cold conditions. To which I replied I did not believe that a nice new building was going to put little kids who know that there older brother or sister is dealing with something really scary that may result in them being taken away, any more ease than this building did.
I heard alot about how great the new facility would be generally, but only one of the judges actually described the plan more or less to me. They described the new facility as a “one stop shop” for services. Since there are sometimes interpreters (and sometimes not) there for court, wouldn’t it be great if when they have to come to court, they could also get hooked in with all these other undisclosed services. When questioned further, the judge spoke about how none of the services will actually be housed in the new facility, that different providers would have “booths” around the room and that there would be people with specific shirts on to indicate that they were workers and that they would come over with laptops to help you schedule all of your necessary appointments. T-SHIRTS AND LAPTOPS??? No services will be provided there, people will leave with appointments, that is it. I asked how it was being done now and they just said that everything was more spread out. But honestly, if all people are getting is appointments online, this system would essentially be no different than someone doing it themselves at the library (who’s hours are always getting cut too). And of course, to get this additional assistance, you must first enter the criminal justice system.
Thankfully at the end of the day, the hands down best part happened when one of the WISH members unfurled a banner they had and made an impromptu speech about the racist roots of the police as slave catchers. And called out the event for the waste of time that it was. And said how everyone is so busy congratulating themselves to realize that they are the problem. I was so happy this happened! The day up to that point had been an incredibly frustrating, energy suck. The very people that uphold the racist, classist youth detention system were so deluded that they are helping and really accomplishing something positive. Don’t get me wrong, there were some programs that are more restorative justice based that sounded neat, but they are also drastically underfunded and will get no money from this levy. The worst part though was how everyone was so hung up on their narrowly focused job to see that the whole system that is destroying families and communities is made up of individuals just like themselves who are “just doing their job”. All these individual cogs in the wheel makes up a machine that targets, tears apart and destroys in a very intentional way against youth of color, immigrants, queers and poor people.
In the next month or so, there will be another open house. I highly, highly encourage people to come out for this. Now that we know what we are dealing with, I for one am not going to waste my breath on any of these people again. No way! Instead WISH is going to have an event outside of the facility where we can openly show our disdain for the current facility, the proposed facility and everyone who works there, whether they think they are helping or not (aside from volunteers that go in there and such). More information about that to follow as soon as they release the next date. Stay tuned!