Echoes of Block the Bunker? Yes. And No. Photo by Alex Garland

Authorities Approve Youth Jail, Leaving the Job of Obstruction to Activists

Is #NoNewYouthJail the new #BlockTheBunker?

The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections has approved King County’s plans to build a new “Children and Family Justice Center” facility, which includes a youth jail.

The jail has faced heavy opposition from anti-racist activists for years. They say that it is an investment in youth incarceration—something local governments have already committed to trying to eliminate. Proponents of the youth jail say that existing facilities are inadequate and inhumane. Funding for the new youth jail and accompanying facilities was approved by county voters in 2012, though the summary of the proposition they voted on did not explicitly mention the youth jail.

In a press release, Mayor Ed Murray tried to wash his hands of the decision. “The Office of the Mayor cannot intervene in any permitting decision, including this one, as it is a technical decision based on the County’s application…The City must base any permit decision on the technical design facts in a permit application, and not on any policy considerations. I recognize that significant racial disparities exist in our City and ultimately our goal is to keep all young people from entering the criminal justice system and I will continue to direct City resources to ending these disparities in foundational areas such as education, employment, and criminal justice.”

The issue has many similarities to the proposed North Precinct project, another major capital project that Black Lives Matter activists rallied against, and that city officials at first insisted was all but a done deal. However, #BlockTheBunker activists managed to put the project on ice earlier this year. That said, the jail, while located in the city, is a county project, and even members of the newly emboldened left flank of the City Council seem hesitant to promise too much in terms of action from the council.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, in a statement on Thursday, seemed to put the onus on the county to change course. “Mounting evidence reinforces what communities of color have been telling us for years: jailing youth perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence, makes detainees more likely to re-offend, and disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly black youth,” he said in the written statement. “It is unfortunate that the permit application submitted by the County, with plans for 112 detention beds, seems to be inconsistent with the City Council’s vision for a city with zero use of youth detention, and the county’s stated intention to ‘fight for a world where detention for young people is no longer needed.’ …I urge the County to go back to the drawing board.”