The Youth Jail: Tactics in Struggle

The Youth Jail: Tactics in Struggle

The Reallocate to Recreate Rally. Photo By: Casey McKeel
The Reallocate to Recreate Rally. Photo By: Casey McKeel

A crowd of over two hundred gathered downtown at the War Memorial Building at 101 North Gay Street two nights after President Barack Obama won re-election. They gathered to hear an assortment of over two dozen elected officials, city bureaucrats, religious leaders, and youth ambassadors speak out. Many were still visibly elated from the recent late-night election victory, but the occasion this evening was a serious one. The Reallocate to Recreate Rally was called to voice opposition to the proposed construction of a new youth jail for Baltimore City youth offenders charged as adults.

A large chessboard and oversized-bowling lane were set-up inside the municipal building to make the event family friendly and encourage attendance. Many attendees brought their kids. An hour into the show most seats were filled and TV cameramen were vying for a view. The back of the venue was filled, standing room only.

Story By: Joe Tropea, Photos By: Casey McKeel

Reallocate to Recreate Rally. Photo By: Casey McKeel

The Youth Jail

The decision to build a 230-bed youth jail dates back to Governor Robert Ehrlich’s administration. It was conceived to satisfy the Department of Justice’s objections to the horrible conditions at Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC) under which youth charged as adults are held during the pretrial phase. Keep in mind that at this point in the process youths have not been found guilty. Under Maryland law, youths can be charged as adults for certain serious crimes if they are under eighteen years old. Any person under eighteen who is held in the current city jail (BCDC) has been charged with crimes ranging from kidnapping, second-degree murder, and second-degree rape to robbery, gun violations related to a drug trafficking crime, carjacking, and/or first-degree assault.

The plan was advanced and modified by O’Malley when he assumed office in January 2007. Following recommendations from a report prepared by the not-so independent Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, O’Malley put out a request for contractors to build a new jail as proposed by his predecessor. Before the report was even delivered, O’Malley announced that he suspected a 230-bed jail was about 50 percent too big, according to Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of Safe and Sound, a small non-profit whose mission is to improve conditions for Baltimore families and youth.

Since 2009, the state has spent approximately $24 million on site acquisition, preparation, and architects leaving a balance of about $80 million. One sure sign that the plan has always been on shaky footing is that throughout his tenure, O’Malley has vacillated his stance on the youth jail at BCDC, calling it at various points “very old and decrepit,” inadequate in size, and insinuating that it’s poorly guarded and managed. Currently only 43 youths are taking up space at the jail, according to Delegate Aisha Braveboy of Prince George’s County. There have been 45 empty cells in the facility for nearly a year.

Despite approval by both a Republican and Democrat governor, not everyone paying attention to the youth jail issue believes a new facility is the best answer to the problem of having over $100 million in federally mandated funds to spend. The money is actually a bond loan the state of Maryland will pay back over the next fifteen years and can only be used as capital funds to build things like recreation centers, schools, or jails.

Grassroot groups such as the Baltimore Algebra Project and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle have been organizing and demonstrating against the jail plan for years. A half dozen other allies have joined in the fight, organizations such as Union Baptist Church, Kinetics Faith and Justice Network, and within the past year Occupy Baltimore.

In 2010, under growing pressure from various parties, O’Malley commissioned the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), an authoritative independent nonprofit, social research organization dedicated to probation issues, to assess the state’s plan. The NCCD recommendations, which came out in the form of two reports, 1 refuted the Department of Public Safety’s findings and emphatically argued that a new facility is not necessary. While the 2010 report obliterated DPS’s methodology used in its findings, the 2011 report recommended expanding community-based alternatives and improving management policies at the current facility over building a new jail.

Even those working inside the system are at odds with the state’s plans. As recently as July 2012, state commissioner of pretrial detention and services, Wendell "Pete" France, refuted the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ earlier findings, telling a Baltimore Sun reporter, “We do not have pristine environments in our correctional facilities, but the conditions are not deplorable."

Reasons not to build the proposed 120-bed facility are plentiful.

Reverend Jesse Jackson at Reallocate to Recreate Rally. Photo By: Casey McKeel


A Rally to “Reallocate to Recreate”

The rally was yet another well-planned, well-attended event that will no doubt add some momentum to an already effective movement underway to block the construction of the jail. If not as innovative as previous actions against the proposed construction, it certainly got the word out via every TV station and newspaper in town. It’s a movement that’s been building since 2009, even earlier by some estimations. Similar riskier events have included Youth Justice Sunday (October 2010) and Schools Not Jails (January 2012), both involved marches and the latter resulted in the arrest of six activists. The Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP), an outgrowth of the national organization pioneered by civil rights leader Bob Moses, helped organize the previous events and has been involved in fighting the jail in one way or another since 2003. Yet BAP’s presence was conspicuously missing on this night.

The Reallocate to Recreate Rally was staged by Safe and Sound and managed by community organizer Tyrone Barnwell with Ferebee acting as MC for the evening. Attendees witnessed a barrage of concerned politicians and various citizens that culminated in an appearance by civil rights leader and publicity machine Reverend Jesse Jackson. Arguments were directed at Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Governor Martin O’Malley, neither of whom attended but both have been supportive of the proposed youth jail plan.

Every speaker agreed that the state’s current plan to spend $104 million (currently being reported elsewhere as $70 million for reasons unclear) on a new youth jail and $13 million annually for its upkeep is unacceptable, especially at a time when, by O’Malley’s own admission, numbers of youth charged as adults and accused of serious crimes in Maryland are at a historic low. Opponents argue that the money should be spent investing in programs that benefit the future success of Baltimore youth.

Speakers included city council members (Mary Pat Clarke, Carl Stokes, Brandon Scott, Nick Mosby, and council president Bernard “Jack” Young), state senators and delegates (Nathaniel McFadden, Catherine Pugh, Verna Jones-Rodwell, Heather Mizeur, Barbara Robinson, and Mary Washington), religious leaders (Pastors Khalis Lemons, Todd Yeary, and Al Hathaway), social justice activists, and youth ambassadors such as Vernon Crowffey, a former youth detainee who now works building greenhouses.

“If they build it, they will fill it.”

One of the central themes, which every speaker addressed directly, was the reallocation of the state’s funds to programs that will empower city youth and help them plan for the future rather than planning to jail them. “Opportunity is more cost effective than building jails,” said Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke (D, district 14) who led off for the City Council. Council President Bernard “Jack” Young was more blunt. He said he went ballistic when he heard about the jail. Charging up the crowd Young said,  “Hell no to the jail. Hell yes to our youth. If they build it, they will fill it.”

Karen Helm of the Baltimore Ethical Society pointed to history in her three minutes to speak. “Others use drugs as much or more than African Americans. Why are 99 percent of youth detainees African American,” she asked. “A legacy of slavery, arbitrary arrests, arbitrary beatings,” she answered. “We want the same amount invested in success for youth as they want to invest in failure.” Delegate Barbara Robinson (D, district 40, Baltimore City) denounced what she views as the plan’s “If we build it they will come mentality.”  

Pastor Todd Yeary, who recently traveled to the Gambia with and was responsible for bringing Reverend Jesse Jackson to the event, stressed focusing on education and job training. He then introduced the keynote speaker, Reverend Jackson, whose presence was responsible for nearly every local media outlet’s attendance. The Reverend engaged the crowd with recitation and spoke convincingly on the jail plan among other issues. “Jails shouldn’t be better facilities than our houses,” he said. He also mentioned that he met with Governor O’Malley and Mayor Rawlings-Blake prior to the rally, but offered no details of their conversations.

After the rally in a phone interview, Hathaway Ferebee was not able to offer specifics on the meeting between O’Malley, Rawlings-Blake, and Jackson, because she did not attend the meeting, but she was eager to elaborate on alternatives to a new youth jail. When asked if the state would feel compelled to forge ahead having already spent over $20 million on their plans, she said, “What has been spent was done so because of bad public policy – but future expenditures can and must be guided by the facts and research that call for the reallocation of the funds for alternatives to detention and youth opportunities.”

“We have alternatives that are already working and produce better outcomes for less expense,” Ferebee said. “Pre-Adjudication Coordination and Transition (PACT) Centers receive male juveniles and assess their risk. At this point it’s not supposed to be punishment but remedial.”

Ferebee next points to the Ready by 21 Compact in which safe to release youths enroll in a paid internship program. “This has an 84 percent success rate and costs about $20,000 per year, much less than jail costs,” she explained.

Crowd at Reallocate to Recreate Rally. Photo By: Casey McKeel

Which Fight Should We Have Now?

With so much high-profile opposition and so many good reasons not to build a new jail, the less jaded citizen might wonder how the state’s plan can ever go through. Adding to the confusion is the Governor, who touts the reduction in crime rates as a signature success of his administration and seems at times his own worst spokesman for the jail plan. But as recently as early October, O’Malley called the issue “a political football” and affirmed that plans are moving forward.

Not everyone involved in the movement against the youth jail agrees that the rally was a success. On November 12, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a for-profit, youth led think-tank and political action committee posted a sharp critique on its website titled, “What Was Wrong with the “Affirmative Opportunity” Rally Against the Youth Jail?” LBS’s Adam Jackson, CEO, decried mainstream press and Ferebee for not “acknowledging the Black grassroots activism that has been essential to the resistance of the youth jail thus far.” Amid charges that Safe and Sound is overtly clamoring for “personal financial gain and organizational recognition.” Jackson also accused Ferebee of not inviting invested organizations like LBS and BAP to a meeting with O’Malley that he claims she orchestrated, a claim that Ferebee denies.

The dustup continued the following day on the Marc Steiner Show when LBS’s Dayvon Love and BAP’s Nicole Cheatom expressed their displeasure with the rally. The two discussed the “non-profit industrial complex,” a critique recently advanced by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, an organization with chapters in over a dozen cities across North America. Briefly, the critique argues that the non-profit sector, largely controlled by wealthy white families, controls dissent within movements and acts as a “shadow state.”

“I was at the rally. They didn’t mention the grassroots work that’s been done. Well-funded non-profits tend to get the credit,” said Love. “We’ve been trying to get a meeting with the Governor for three years. All these delegates, too. Bring in Reverend Jesse Jackson and they jump in,” added Cheatom. The critique along with the dynamics of race and who gets the credit seemed to come as a shock to Delegates Mizeur and Braveboy who were also featured guests on the show. All seemed to agree a larger discussion should take place.

What if anything has the non-profit sector in Baltimore, specifically Safe and Sound, done to undermine the struggle of grassroots activists against the proposed youth jail? This subject will be explored in part two of this piece.

What you can do to help stop the building of a new youth jail: Call and email Gov. O’Malley: 410.974.3901 /  Also contact your neighborhood association and urge them to take a stand against the jail.

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Ericson, Ed. “Jesse Jackson Rallies Against Youth Jail,” City Paper, Nov. 14, 2012.

Marc Steiner Show, Nov. 13, 2012, segment 3

Jackson, Adam. “What Was Wrong with the “Affirmative Opportunity” Rally Against the Youth Jail?,” LBS Baltimore, Nov. 12, 2012.

WBAL-TV, “Rev. Jackson called in to oppose city youth jail,” Nov. 9, 2012

WJZ-TV, “Rev. Jesse Jackson Protests Proposed Youth Jail In Baltimore,” Nov. 9, 2012.

Fox45, Nov. 9, 2012.

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Fenton, Justin and Annie Linskey. “Youth jail plans moving forward, O'Malley says,” Balt. Sun, Oct. 1, 2012.,0,2745713.story

Helm, Karen. “A Better Future, Not a Better Jail,” Balt. Sun, Aug. 20, 2012.

Fenton, Justin. “Youth in city jail face 'deplorable' conditions,” Balt. Sun, July 28, 2012.,0,6287569,full.story
“Since 2007, the state has been operating under a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve overall conditions at the jail...”
“Around that time, the state agreed to build separate facilities for women and juveniles. But plans for a $100 million youth jail on nearby land were postponed last year by Gov.Martin O'Malley amid the outcry from youth advocates. The opponents were buoyed by a National Council on Crime and Delinquency report, which found that the 230-bed plan was inconsistent with trends in the city's youth population and juvenile crime, which have been on the decline.
At that time, the city had a daily average of 92 youths locked up in adult jails; documents from this month show that number has declined to an average of 47.”

Shen, Fern. Balt. Brew, Jan. 17, 2012.

Farooq, Umar. “Baltimore Algebra Project Stops Juvenile Detention Center,” The Nation, Jan. 24, 2012.
“In 2009 two members were arrested and charged as adults, leading group members to focus on ending what some call the “School to Prison Pipeline”: a system of inadequate schooling and diminished expectations that attracts kids to crime and eventually prison.”
“More than two dozen groups formed a coalition against the jail, and last October the Algebra Project’s ranks swelled as dozens of Occupy Baltimore members joined their actions.”

Op-Ed. “Downsizing juvenile jail,” Balt. Sun, May 12, 2011.,0,1193548.story

“Youth Justice Sunday Draws Hundreds in Baltimore; Beyond the Bricks Members Join Protest,” by Ray Winbush &
Bishop, Tricia. “Hundreds protest state plans to build youth jail,” Balt. Sun, Oct. 31, 2010.

Stop Baltimore Youth Jail’s Representatives Pledge, July 20, 2010