Seattle pursues new youth jail despite community opposition


Seattle pursues new youth jail despite community opposition

Seattle's new youth jail is drawing continuous controversy. (Courtesy King County)

Officials continue pushing for the construction of a controversial youth detention center in Seattle in the face of vocal community opposition.

The new Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC)—approved in 2012 via voter referendum—in Seattle’s Central District would be a 137,000-square-foot family courthouse with ten courtrooms; a 92,000-square foot Juvenile Detention center with 112 detention beds; a 10,200-square foot “Youth Program Space” meant for non-detention youth programming; a 360-stall, partially-submerged parking structure; and 1.55-acres of open space, including a pedestrian and bicycle path. It would be located in one of Seattle’s most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

The project, according to an informational site hosted by King County, aims to replace the existing, 212-detention bed Youth Service Center facility. City of Seattle and King County officials see the replacement project as an opportunity to capitalize on recent progress the municipalities have made in reducing overall youth prison populations by repurposing excess detention capacity as community-oriented space. The project also represents an opportunity to stitch the neighborhood back together via the pedestrian path and by re-opening previously-closed off streets in the area.

But for many community members, these efforts are not enough. Activist groups see the complex as a manifestation of institutionalized racism, an extension of the schools-to-prison pipeline, and a misplaced source of government funds. Community members reject the project’s “detention-centric” premise and highlight the city’s recent strides in decreasing the incarcerated youth population as further reason why the new center’s focus should be on eliminating youth detention in its totality. The new jail, according to community activists, is simply unnecessary as-designed and could benefit from being fundamentally reconsidered with regards to its programming.

The existing Youth Service Center is due to be replaced with a controversial, new youth jail complex. (Courtesy King County)

According to the King County site, construction company Howard S. Wright has been contracted to design and build the complex.

Opposition to the complex goes all the way up to the local government itself: In an editorial published in The Stranger, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski and Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell reiterated some of the community’s positions, saying, “We need a dispersed, community-based juvenile justice system,” adding that the new jail, “does nothing to address the burdens imposed on youth in the system from outside Seattle.”

Moreover, activists are citing opposition to the new youth jail as part of a city-wide push to resist the Trump administration’s efforts to expand the police state. They are also calling local leaders to task for what they see as implicit hypocrisy inherent in their simultaneous public invocations of the city’s so-called sanctuary city status. In a press release from Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), which decried recent municipal efforts to move the project through the approval process despite a community-filed appeal to revoke the previously-approved Master Land Use permit for the project, Dr. Gary Kint’e Perry, an organizer with EPIC and the No New Youth Jail Campaign said, “If Seattle is now considered a sanctuary city, I am wondering what the definition of sanctuary is. Locking up our kids in cages seems like hypocrisy to me.” The press release continues, “proclamations made by King County Executive Dow Constantine and City of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray do not mean anything to our community if the plan going forwards includes building or allowing for a jail that expands the incarceration of children of color, immigrant children, and undocumented children to be caged, deported or oppressed through upholding institutional racism.”

The project’s Master Land Use permit (MLUP) was approved in the final days of 2016. That decision was appealed by neighborhood activists who sought further environmental studies for the projects. That appeal was rejected last week by a city Hearing Examiner on the grounds that the office lacked the jurisdiction to appeal the MLUP. For now, the controversy continues. A King County Public Information Officer explained over telephone to The Architect’s Newspaper that the project is on currently on-track to be granted building permits. Though a formal timeline is forthcoming, information on the King County website indicates that construction on the project will begin in Summer 2017, with the new center due to be opened by 2020.