Hip-Hop vs. Lock-up

David Hill
June 23, 2003
Youth march to protest plans of a juvenile detention center in Alameda County
Youth march to protest plans of a juvenile detention center in Alameda County

On May 17, 2001, Fela Thomas and dozens more Bay Area youth activists boarded two early morning flights out of San Francisco International Airport and headed south to San Diego, where the California Board of Corrections was slated to dole out millions of federal and state grant dollars for the construction of juvenile detention centers.

For months, the activists—hip-hop teens and twentysomethings from some of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods—had been trying to stop Alameda County from building a massive new 540-bed “super jail” for kids in the suburban city of Dublin, about an hour’s drive from Oakland.

Now, at a meeting that had been hastily moved from Sacramento—apparently to make it harder for them to attend—the protesters stood in the back of the room holding placards
(“Educate, Don’t Incarcerate!”) and raising clenched fists in the air. When the time came for public comment, several of them, including Thomas, a 23-year-old Oakland resident, stood before the 12-member board and demanded that it rescind a $2.3 million grant earmarked for Alameda County’s proposed juvenile hall.

“I told them they needed to get their priorities straight,” Thomas recalls, “that the way they were running their game wasn’t working and was hurtful and destructive to communities of color, and young people in particular.”

Thomas and his colleagues pointed out that juvenile crime in Alameda County had gone down. That the existing juvenile hall was frequently overcrowded not because of an increase in crime but because probation officials refuse to place nonviolent juveniles in community-based programs. That moving the detention center to Dublin would make it harder for family members to visit their children, the majority of whom come from Oakland.

Rachel Jackson, field coordinator for the campaign against the proposed detention center, knew that the board rarely overruled its executive steering committee, which had already approved the $2.3 million grant. “But we were really hopeful that the presence of young people would make a difference,” she says.

The board members listened patiently, argued among themselves, and then, in a stunning defeat for Alameda County officials, voted 10 to 1 (with one abstention) to reject the grant and redirect the funds to a project in Sacramento.

The activists couldn’t believe their ears.

“We were ecstatic,” Jackson says. “We started chanting, ‘Ain’t no power like the power of the youth, ’cause the power of youth don’t change!’ Then we held a rally outside in the parking lot.”

Board member Zev Yaroslavsky, a Los Angeles County supervisor, told the Los Angeles Times that the impassioned pleas from the young activists helped convince him to overrule the subcommittee’s recommendation.

“I wouldn’t have given them 10 cents for their odds to change the minds of the Board of Corrections, but they did it,” he said. “After hearing them speak, the board decided, ‘Let’s take a second look at this.’ I was a protester when I was young, and I never got those results.”

Final victory, though, remained years away.

A Building Boom
America is in the midst of a juvenile detention building boom, despite a sharp decrease in serious and violent crimes committed by young Americans since the early 1990s.

In January 2002, the publication Youth Today estimated that the number of detention beds will increase by at least 25 percent nationwide over the next few years. In California, prison officials and local politicians are parlaying federal, state, and county dollars into the construction of more than 3,000 new detention beds and 1,350 replacement beds. When these projects are completed, California will have a juvenile detention capacity of more than 9,000 beds. That’s a 50 percent increase from 1999.

But a growing chorus of reformers is calling on policymakers to explore alternatives to locked juvenile detention. In 2001, a panel on juvenile crime convened by the National Academy of Sciences urged the federal government to provide states with funds and other incentives to develop community-based alternatives for juvenile offenders.

Young Voices Matter
In Alameda and a handful of other jurisdictions, young people themselves are taking a leading role in attacking the status quo, employing attention-getting street tactics to get their message across. Many of these youth have firsthand experience with juvenile detention, so fighting what they see as a flawed system is more than academic—it’s personal.

“These days, it’s kind of hard for young people of color to not have some connection to the prison and juvenile justice system,” says Thomas, the Oakland activist, whose brother has been in and out of prison over the past nine years. For him, traveling to San Diego to confront the Board of Corrections was an “empowering” experience.

Van Jones, who has helped organize much of the campaign against the proposed detention center, says, “Most people don’t think that young people can do much of anything. But young people around the world have played leading roles in correcting
social problems.”

Jones, a 34-year-old Yale University Law School graduate and social activist, founded the San Francisco-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in 1996. Named for an unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement, the nonprofit center challenges what it sees as human rights abuses in the criminal justice system.

In 2001 Jones launched “Books Not Bars,” a campaign to, in his words, “expose and end the widespread over-incarceration of youth.”

“Young people have a lot of energy and a lot of passion. They’re smart, funny, charismatic, great on TV, impossible to ignore,” says Jones. “Kids put things in stark, clear terms that are hard to ignore.”

Bigger, Not Bettter
The Books Not Bars campaign was barely under way when Jones learned that Alameda County was planning to build a $176 million, 540-bed juvenile detention complex to replace an aging and overcrowded 299-bed hall.

The county’s plan for the facility was developed by Rosser International, an Atlanta-based prison design and construction firm. In justifying its proposal to nearly double the number of detention beds, Rosser presented calculations showing that juvenile court referrals and detentions in Alameda County were on the rise, as was the county’s youth population.

With little fanfare or debate, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in early 2001 to build the new center.

Activists On the Case
Then Van Jones and his young partners got on the case.

“At first,” Jones says, “we didn’t know that a 540-bed facility was especially big.”

But Jones and his colleagues quickly discovered that a detention center of that size in a county of 1.5 million residents would make it one of the largest per capita in the nation. By contrast, Cook County, Illinois, with a population of more than 5 million residents, has a 498-bed juvenile detention center.

On March 15, 2001, Jones and about 35 protesters, many of them young hip-hop activists with ties to Oakland’s Youth Force Coalition, held a noisy rally outside the Alameda County Probation Department’s office in downtown Oakland.

Two weeks later, Books Not Bars interrupted Alameda County’s presentation to the state Board of Corrections in Sacramento.

On May 9, more than 100 protesters pleaded their case at a special public hearing. The state corrections board had already awarded the $33.1 million grant to the county and was considering an additional $2.3 million. Protesters demanded that county supervisors turn down the extra funds and build a facility with no more than 330 beds. Bart Lubow, a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, testified about the successes of the Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and offered to show county officials how to rethink and reform their juvenile justice system.

The supervisors put off a decision that night. A week later, in a 3-to-2 vote, they voted to move forward with the 540-bed facility.

That’s when the Books Not Bars activists flew to San Diego and convinced the Board of Corrections to reject the county’s $2.3 million grant request. Buoyed by that victory, the teen activists ramped up the campaign. At a raucous board meeting on July 24, 2001, protesters chanted, rapped and sang protest tunes. Afterward the protesters held a sit-in in front of the supervisors’ dais, and nine were arrested.
In that July meeting, the board supervisors did vote to reduce the detention center from 540 beds to 450. Then in October 2001, board members agreed to scale the facility down to 420 beds. But from then on the board refused to budge.

Oversized, Racially Imbalanced
In November 2001, the National Council on Crime Delinquency issued a report spelling out serious flaws in the county’s plan for a 540-bed facility and examining the causes of crowding at Alameda’s existing detention center. NCCD reported that one-fourth of the young people admitted to detention from February to May of 2000 were locked up not for committing crimes, but rather for violating probation rules or failing to appear in court.

NCCD’s president, Barry Krisberg, argues that Alameda’s new juvenile hall could actually be smaller than the existing 299-bed facility. “I think a serious commitment to alternatives could drive that population down even further,” he says. “It would be relatively easy to move somewhere between 75 and 100 kids to less secure placements.”

In April 2002, with help from NCCD and other juvenile justice reform organizations, Books Not Bars generated its own report, slamming the county for hiring Rosser International to write its plan, pointing out that as a potential bidder on the new facility, Rosser had a vested interest in demonstrating the need for a larger hall.

As the Casey Foundation’s Bart Lubow told columnist Arianna Huffington, “That’s like asking Lockheed Martin how many bombers the U.S. needs to protect itself.”

The report also took aim at the dramatic overrepresentation of minorities in Alameda’s juvenile hall, where 86 percent of the youth admitted into custody are nonwhite.

“We won”
Despite all this evidence, however, county supervisors pushed ahead with the plans throughout all of 2002 and the early months of 2003. Only environmental reviews and legal challenges filed by local Dublin residents delayed construction of the new facility.

Gradually, though, the political tide began to turn as the daily population of the existing hall declined, the county’s fiscal woes mounted, and the most vocal champion of the super jail plan—county probation chief Sylvia Johnson—retired in January 2003.

Finally, on May 6, the county supervisors voted 4-1 to abort the planned Dublin super jail. Instead the supervisors authorized a 360-bed facility near the old juvenile hall in the town of San Leander, far closer to Oakland.

“We won,” said Ying-sun Ho, communications director for Books Not Bars. “Both on size and location, we won.”

County Supervisor Keith Carson agreed. “I don’t think we would be where we are today if it hadn’t been for the kids,” Carson told the San Francisco Chronicle. “They actually worked the system. They were real activists in the democratic process.”


David Hill, formerly a writer for Teacher Magazine and Education Week, is now a freelance writer based in Denver.