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Books Not Bars: The Anti-Prison Backlash

July 26, 2001 [ Printer-friendly version ]

The last 20 years have been a boom time for America's jailers. New prisons have been popping up at a rate even McDonald's would envy, while the number of people living behind bars has quadrupled: "Over 2 million dissatisfied customers served."

Particularly troubling is the fact that close to 100,000 children are in custody and that high school dropout rates are in lock step with the rate of juvenile incarceration. As a result, many of America's schools have become preparatory facilities not for college but for jail. Indeed California ranks first in the nation in prison spending and 43rd in spending on public education.

Yet this wretched state of affairs and the public policies that have produced it have, until recently, inspired little public debate. But now, due to the efforts of a broad coalition ranging from grassroots activists to criminal justice experts, the tide has finally started to turn. And -- not surprisingly -- young people are in the lead.

The latest rallying point for the movement against the expansion of the incarceration industry is the juvenile jail being planned for Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay area. Dubbed a "Super Jail for Kids," it would be -- per capita -- one of the largest juvenile halls in America. New York City, with a population of 7 million, has only 398 spots set aside for youth offenders; Alameda County officials, serving a community one-fifth New York's size, proposed a facility with 540 beds. And the criminal justice system will no doubt rise to the task of filling them. If you build them, they will come.

Proponents of the super jail argue that it is needed in order to lessen chronic overcrowding. But as Van Jones, founder of the Books Not Bars campaign, told me: "We're also concerned with overcrowding. But to address that problem you can either build bigger jails or put fewer kids in them. And that's where we part company with the county."

Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation has another problem with the size of the super jail. "It doesn't seem to be based on any sort of science," he says. "As far as I can tell, the numbers are from folks in the juvenile detention construction business. That's like asking Lockheed Martin how many bombers the U.S. needs to protect itself."

Until a few months ago, the $117 million project was chugging merrily along with hardly any opposition. That's when Books Not Bars and the Youth Force Coalition launched a last-ditch effort to try and derail it. Combining attention-getting, street-smart tactics -- including interrupting formal hearings with protest poems and rap music -- with an impressively reasoned case, the young activists achieved some surprising results.

For instance, this spring when 70 of them showed up at a meeting of the California Board of Corrections -- a meeting that had been moved 500 miles to make it harder for the protesters to attend -- they helped convince the board to withdraw $2.3 million in funding for the Alameda project. Even their critics conceded the eloquence of their argument against the super jail and in favor of more money spent on counseling, education and job programs. Books Not Bars, indeed.

"These kids made a difference," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a member of the corrections board, told me. "They were prepared and spoke to the larger issue of whether we should be criminalizing or trying to socialize kids who get in trouble. I was a protester when I was young, and I never got these kinds of results."

The battle continued this week at a raucous Alameda County supervisors meeting, where the protesters scored a minor victory when the board voted to reduce the new jail from 540 to 450 beds. The activists were hoping for more -- and nine of them were arrested when they sat down in front of the supervisors' dais and refused to move. Police ended the sit-in by dragging them out by their arms and legs. Apparently, and ironically, it takes people willing to get arrested to stop the prison industrial complex.

The supervisors also voted to approve a study of the county's juvenile justice system, with an emphasis on early intervention efforts and alternative options to detention. Even Supervisor Gail Steele, a backer of the new jail, applauded the activists' efforts. "I credit the kids," Steele says, "with getting it on the table that you have to do something on the front end -- that you have to provide services and alternatives to keep kids out of jail."

But youth advocates say the real fight has just begun. "The county is not fooling us with these minor concessions and tricky maneuvers," Jones told me. Whatever the final outcome, the Super Jail protests are another example of how young people are emerging as the leaders of a resurgent activist movement taking hold across the country -- especially on college campuses, where student demonstrators have altered school policies on everything from selling products made in sweatshops to paying campus workers a living wage.

As for the nation's massive incarceration industry, its real costs are as hidden from the public as its victims. But young activists have vowed to continue working to turn a too-good-to-be-true boom into a too-destructive-to-continue bust.

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