The Face of Our Future: The State's Plan to Build a New Youth Jail and the Campaign to Defeat It

The Face of Our Future: The State's Plan to Build a New Youth Jail and the Campaign to Defeat It

A Maryland State Police officer overlooks the construction by activists of a symbolic schoolhouse on the site of the proposed Youth Jail. Photo by: Casey McKeel.
A Maryland State Police officer overlooks the construction by activists of a symbolic schoolhouse on the site of the proposed Youth Jail. Photo by: Casey McKeel.

“They just assume the worst.” Eighteen-year-old Lawrence (all names have been changed for this article) is referring to the social workers who come into Baltimore neighborhoods like his. Policy mandates call for them to remove hurt or neglected children. However, Lawrence feels it is done without appreciating that working parents simply cannot afford some supervision, let alone structured daycare. He also has frustration with other agencies, such as police, juvenile services, and adult probation, where kids left to fend for themselves end up. Lawrence is one of them.

What Lawrence has seen in his short lifetime is a brand new detention center on Gay Street, and plans to build more juvenile facilities. This includes the so-called Youth Jail that will house teens charged as adults. Despite a state-commissioned report that finds this new facility is unnecessary, Governor Martin O’Malley is pushing for it. Whether it is built will define the future for generations of Baltimore youth to come, and most notably those in the African American community.

Lawrence is one of the ten African-American youth who started a jobs skills training program last summer with the Youth Know How (YKH) Initiative, a program of Fusion Partnerships, Inc. Both organizations are part of an alliance of over 30 organizations campaigning to stop the building of the Youth Jail. This writer is the YKH Director,
and she was the facilitator of the rigorous 40-hour training hosted by the Coppin Heights-Rosemont Family Computer Center on the campus of Coppin State University. Four months after Lawrence and five other youth completed the training, they met again to discuss their thoughts on the proposed Youth Jail and the importance of skills-building programs.

When he was very young, Lawrence’s mother was addicted to drugs, and his other adult family members spent time behind bars. He was scared when his grandmother could not pay the bills. He was angry when he was left hungry. His grandmother warned him to stay out of trouble but she had no means to back it up. Lawrence shakes his head. “I started hanging out with older kids. Rec Center wasn’t there. I didn’t want to be out on the streets.”

Despite their age, the two youngest youth know full well the need to stay actively engaged. Hadari, fourteen, says that the training and his subsequent paid internship at the Family Computer Center, “bettered me as a person, and keeps me out of trouble.”

Robert, thirteen, another good student, says the value of this kind of program goes beyond what you learn. “It can give youth confidence. They find out they can do it. Once they do it, they do it again.”

Bersheba wastes no time agreeing. Exceptionally articulate, she reflects on recent school closings and consolidations. “It’s sad, because classes are already overcrowded,” which feeds into a dislike for school. That leads youth to do “what’s out there, hustling. I’ve known little boys who started at 10 years old and they’re still there.”

She graduated from high school, where she participated in ROTC. Yet, there was little guidance from family members or school counselors to keep moving forward. She now supports herself and her grandmother with a job that has no benefits. “I’m 24 years old and I can’t make it with just a high school diploma. With the economy going down, they make it harder for youth.”

Ryan, who just turned eighteen, appreciates one benefit of incarceration. “If it wasn’t for jails a lot of people would be dead.” He figures it is better to be alive in jail than dead on the streets. Still, he says, “It’s not right.”

He has seen how a manageable problem “escalates” for youth like him. Ryan recounts a very recent situation with his ten-year-old cousin who was in a fight at his elementary school. The police were called and “took him out in handcuffs to baby booking.”

He knows there is another way. “Before you put your hands on someone else’s kid, I think you should talk about it with them.”

These youth see new jails open, recreation centers closed, and old dilapidated schools deteriorate further. Deep down, they know that the system is betting against them. And, they are right. Decades of reports and research back up their intuition.

THE INHERENT RACISM OF INCARCERATION IN THE UNITED STATES

Simply by virtue of being African American, all of the youth in the jobs skills program are 20 to 50 times more likely to be in the juvenile or criminal justice system. This phenomenon is called, “Disproportionate Minority Contact.”

But, the bureaucratic phrase masks the troubling truth. The prison-industrial complex is fraught with pervasive and
intransigent racism.

In her stunning 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander notes that between 1960 and 1990 the US incarceration rate quadrupled. With the highest rate in the world, “the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid,” a regime notorious for its system of racial segregation and oppression (and supported by the US during most of its tenure).

In major urban areas, “as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records.” Alexander vividly details how this has relegated them to “a growing undercaste, permanently locked-up and locked out of mainstream society.”

Statistics in Maryland and Baltimore show the same trends. A report from the alliance campaigning to stop the jail shows that “99% of the youth locked up in the Baltimore city jail are African-American, while African-American youth make up only 75% of the city’s youth population.”

CHARACTER VS. CIRCUMSTANCE

People of color are stigmatized by unfounded character flaws not attributed to their white counterparts. This is used to deny access to opportunities. It is also one of the catalysts for mass incarceration.

Disparate treatment of African Americans and whites was reported in a landmark 1998 study, “Racial Disparities in Official Assessments of Juvenile Offenders: Attributional Stereotypes and Mediating Mechanisms.” The research compared similarly situated youth between these two races. The conclusion was deeply troubling. Probation officers consistently concluded that African American youth committed offenses because of deficiencies in their internal attributes, such as disrespect for authority or acceptance of criminal behavior. However, white youth were portrayed as victims of negative circumstances, such as internal family conflict or hanging out with the wrong peers.

The distinction between character and circumstance is crucial. Character flaws are seen as making youth not only less amenable to rehabilitation, but also in need of harsher punishments. It is no surprise that African American youth were more likely to be detained, charged with a criminal offense, and committed to confined institutions. Even more troubling, probation officers of all races were equally likely to view African American youth as damaged. Researchers concluded that this did not result necessarily from personal bigotry, but rather complex prejudicial norms within systems.