Shut 'Em Down

Governor Brown has done it again. He has proposed in the state budget to close the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) once and for all. The DJJ drains much-needed funds from our schools and vital community programs that would help California thrive. The youth prison system promotes violence and re-creates trauma, making it unable to help the youth in its care.

Families have been saying this for years. When I first went with a group of parents of incarcerated youth to Sacramento wearing shirts that said, “Close youth prisons. Open youth opportunities,” people laughed at us. They said it could never happen.

But we knew that locking up kids in isolated prisons fails to give them the opportunity to develop into healthier adults. The members of our statewide network of hundreds of families of imprisoned youth knew firsthand that the DJJ prisons fail at rehabilitation and education. The Ella Baker Center knew that a bright future for California demanded that we reverse the trade-off between schools and jails by prioritizing our investment in opportunities for youth, not in locking them up.

One by one, I have seen five of California’s youth prisons close their doors forever. Now, only 3 prisons remain. The Governor’s plan would speed up the phase-out of the DJJ prisons and transition youth into locally based, home-like programs that are better at providing safe and effective rehabilitation to youth in trouble.

Those who support the youth prisons argue that the DJJ has gotten better. We know, however, that despite numerous lawsuits and billions of dollars sunk into the prisons, DJJ is still a failure.

Many years ago, I toured the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility. I saw with my own eyes that this youth prison, said to help youth get their lives back on track, was instead a living hell. Toilets were backed up and overflowing. Kids told us that they were scared to drink the water because it was infected with sewage. The units were crumbling with equipment over 30 years old. I could not imagine spending one week, much less years, in a place like that.

And unfortunately, the prisons have not gotten better. Books Not Bars staff have been working with Lino- a young person currently locked up in the Ventura “Youth Facility”.  At great personal risk, these youth are organizing from behind bars to demand basic rights and sanitary living conditions.They aren’t asking for “special treatment.”  They simply want functioning toilets. Clothes that fit. And a place to live that meets basic health and sanitation standards.

Lino and his peers’ experience of Ventura is only further proof that the DJJ is a failure. This system costs California hundreds of millions of dollars each year yet fails to provide basic hygiene and shelter, much less rehabilitate the youth it serves. We can not afford a system that wastes taxpayer dollars and wastes young people’s lives.

Now is the time for the DJJ to close.  Our youth can’t wait. Our families can’t wait. And California cannot wait. Please stand with us and ensure we shut the prisons down.