Busting the prison-industrial complex

After years of tougher sentencing laws and increased incarceration of juveniles, the tide in California is beginning to turn.

Published July 26, 2001 3:46PM (EDT)

The past 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 since 1980: "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. In March 2000, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 21, the latest in a series of lock-'em-up measures to pass in the state that makes it easier for juveniles to be tried as adults, leading to longer sentences in harsher adult prisons. But now, as a result of the efforts of a broad coalition ranging from grass-roots activists to criminal justice experts, the tide has finally started to turn.

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, 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 jail argue that it is needed to lessen 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 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 to 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 persuade the board to withdraw $2.3 million in funding for the Alameda project. Even their critics conceded the eloquence of their argument against the 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 size of 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, prompting police to drag them out by their arms and legs. It's unfortunate that apparently, and ironically, it takes people willing to get arrested to stop the prison-industrial complex.

There was also a larger victory -- which was persuading the supervisors to approve a comprehensive 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 efforts of Books Not Bars. "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."

Whatever the final outcome, these 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 protesters 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.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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