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Will a new youth prison make Baltimore safer and is it the best way to treat “young offenders”?

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MEGAN SHERMAN, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Megan Sherman here in front of the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.

Does Baltimore need a new youth jail? That is what we’ll be discussing today at The Real News town hall on youth in the criminal justice system. Joining us in presenting this to you is the Baltimore Algebra Project, the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and the American Studies Association.

The governor of Maryland has announced that the state has committed to building a $100 million youth detention center to house youth who are charged as adults in Baltimore. Will this make the community safer? Will it rehabilitate young offenders? Should youth be charged as adults is all? Join us as we take up these issues at The Real News Baltimore town hall, hosted by Paul Jay.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore, and this is a town hall on youth in the criminal justice system.

Now I’m going to introduce to you our panel today. Koli Tengella is executive manager of ReWired for Change, which is a nonprofit organization with afterschool programs that includes a life skills program called ReWired for Change. Next is Maryland Shaw. Maryland works with the Algebra Project. She also helped us organize this session. Next is Nicole Cheatom. She also works with Algebra Project. She also works with the urban debates league in Baltimore and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. And Kara Annerson works with the Just Kids Partnership, and the report—one of the reports they did was featured in our report.

So I’m going to throw it right to the panelists for a sort of—each one of you kind of start with a minute or two, picking up maybe where the video left off.

KOLI TENGELLA, REWIRED FOR CHANGE: We have to stop fearing one another and stop fearing our children. What kind of society are we where we are afraid of our own children, where you think a ten-year-old needs to be locked away for years, a 15-year-old with no possibility of redemption or healing? What does that say about us adults? What does it say about even young people who may agree with this stance? We have to begin to embrace the dignity of human life and transform it once again.

MARYLAND SHAW, LEAD ORGANIZER, BALTIMORE ALGEBRA PROJECT: I’m 100 percent against the incarceration of our young people. The question for me is not—isn’t what we do once they committed a crime, but what have we done to prevent them from committing a crime. Have we been in these young people lives? it’s? Are there programs available for these young people to be in? Are there job trainings available? Do these young people need a job? So the question for me is not what do we do once they committed a crime. What are we doing now to make sure that these young people are not committing crime?

NICOLE CHEATOM, ORGANIZER, BALTIMORE ALGEBRA PROJECT: I am also against the youth jail that is being built. Just fun fact: the guy Greg Hill who was in that video is the father of my child. So this issue is very important to me, like, dealing with someone who has been through that experience and hearing those traumatizing stories of how they used to set fires to get more rec time, something simple as, like, getting more rec time, more time to, you know, have physical activity that these youth actually care about, that a lot of people don’t know that they actually care, and that it’s crazy that these youth are incarcerated. And they’re doing, you know, grassroots movements in jail. Like, that within itself is—like, kind of inspired me to be part of this movement.

JAY: We wrote—we invited someone from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to come. They said they couldn’t come, but they did send us an email. So, for example, they say use of community-based alternatives to detention has increased 30 percent since 2007. Add they don’t directly connect this to charging youth as adults, but they’re saying there’s a success story since ’07, which is that there’s now the lowest level of Baltimore juvenile homicides and nonfatal shootings in 30 years, a 52 percent reduction in homicides since 2007 as compared to 2010. So does this not mean that the current policies are effective and the jail isn’t—is in the context of these other things?

ANNENSON: Right. So I think that the important thing to remember is that youth charged as adults are going to the Department of Corrections, not to the Department of Juvenile Services, and the Department of Corrections is used to dealing with adults, not kids. And so to say that DJS is making great strides doesn’t mean that youth charged as adults are actually getting those services.

AUDIENCE: In 2007 there were 51 homicide victims that were between the ages of 10 and 19. In 2010, there were only 16. Okay? The big jump, what happened in 2007 that was so important that brought it down, that was when—that was the year Dr. Alonso got hired and started heading up the Baltimore School System. He’s done a wonderful job keeping kids in school, inspired, and involved so they’re not standing on the corner. This is not a Department of Justice thing; this is a school system thing. That is what is keeping these kids alive, keeping them out of the criminal arena.

JAY: Every study I’ve seen shows that jailing young people doesn’t make a community safer. So if you look at the evidence, it doesn’t say that. But is public opinion still in favor of this, you know, the tougher position? And if that’s the case, why?

CHEATOM: These statistics and things like that aren’t presented to the black community, so they don’t get to see the big picture of, you know, what problems are facing these youth before they get incarcerated, but also the fact that the black community is, you know, like, stuck in this mindset that—you know, of the prison-industrial complex that, you know, you do something wrong, you go to jail, and you really don’t deserve to have rights, because you did something wrong. But the thing that I think is really miscommunicated to the black people in these communities is the fact that there are so many opportunities and, like, different pilot programs around the country that we could model so that these youth wouldn’t feel, you know, helpless, that they, you know, go out, or like how Greg said, you know, it was myself, him, the boy Tom, the boy Cedric, his two sisters, his sister’s four kids, his other sister’s two kids, living in a two-bedroom apartment. You get what I’m saying? And the fact that, you know, three, maybe four of us out of the ten of us actually had jobs. So they thought the best route was for them to go out and commit armed robberies. So it’s, like, things like that the black community miss the back story that, you know, these kids do these things for a reason and that they’re so underserved in our community, and not just the community, but in our educational system, that they’re taught that the only way out is a life of crime.

SHAW: Two-thirds of these young people who are being charged as adults are either waved down to the juvenile system or they’re released. So all these young people you think are committing crimes are not committing no crimes. So there’s a miscommunication, like we’re thinking that all these young people are committing all these crimes, and that is not the fact. So we don’t need $100 million to construct a prison to put our young people in.

JAY: Kinji Scott is a pastor at My Father’s House, a social justice ministry, and he has a son who’s been charged as an adult in Baltimore County. So in terms of this issue, why more people in the community don’t get what the studies are showing, maybe you can speak to that.

KINJI SCOTT, PASTOR, MY FATHER’S HOUSE: The bottom line is we need a facility for our young people who will, unfortunately, commit crimes. I have been around 20 years working with young people and advocating and stuff, but I got the good sense God gave me to know that no matter how many schools we build, no matter how much money we put into programs in the community, there are just some young people—unfortunately, I’m the parent of one [snip] he had an infraction in August, and in August they had to place him into the general population with adults. He’s 5’7″, he’s about 140 pounds, and he has to sit there with other grown men. And so every time I talk to him on the phone or every time I go and see him, I have to work through the wiring that they have done, the mentoring that they have done, because I don’t need him to start thinking like a criminal.

We do need a facility where we’re not able to have—where our young people are not able to be in contact with hardened adult criminals. We have to. We—and I understand, I understand we want to treat them in the community. That sounds good. But the reality is, when children are incarcerated, they have to go somewhere, and we cannot run the risk of having our children placed with adults. And without this facility, as it stands, we have nowhere to place them.

We in this state have the ability, and states across the United States, to decide whether or not we want to charge a child as an adult. I think children who commit very violent crimes, at least until they’re 21, remain there, and then let it be determined whether these children go on over into the adult system. I believe children can be salvaged, I believe children can be saved, but I also believe that we cannot have our children locked away with adults.

TENGELLA: You cannot be locked away and thrown away into a situation where you come out a worse human being because of it. And that’s what we have to advocate for. We want someone who committed a crime to come out of incarceration, hopefully, a better human being with better decision-making skills, not to come out degraded into being more of a predator. We have to go back to a tenet of valuing the common decency and humanity of human beings and not to get selfishly wrapped up into as long as it doesn’t affect me. And that’s [incompr.] We don’t view one another as human beings anymore. We don’t feel any connection.

ANNENSON: The Department of Correction has no statutory mandate to provide any sort of services to youth charged as adults. So even if we are able to get them out of a very bad system at BCDC (and we’re not saying that’s a great place for them to be), moving them to another facility run by the same people who have no training isn’t going to fix the problem. So they could cut all of the services that they’re promising to put in there. They’re saying there’ll be school, they’re saying there’ll be treatments centers, they’re saying there’ll be social workers. But when push comes to shove, there is nothing that requires them to do that.

So we need to find another solution. We can’t build our way out of this problem. Building a new facility doesn’t fix the problem. We have kids over at the baby bookings over at BCJJC, the Baltimore juvenile detention center, that do not need to be there. We have kids sitting there because their parents are refusing to pick them up. Why do those kids need to be in detention? What we need to do is remove those kids from detention that do not need to be detained and detain the kids that really could be a threat to public safety. Move the kids that are at BCDC over to the juvenile system and get the kids that are detained in the juvenile system that don’t need to be there out. That’s what needs to happen. And building a new facility isn’t going to fix that problem. It’s just going to give the state more space to put kids.

SCOTT: You said we have young people who are at the detention center now, down at the Juvenile Justice Center, whose parents will not pick them up. That speaks to even a greater issue in our community is our detachment as black folk from our children.

SHAW: We need to take the responsibility and take care of our own kids. Building this jail, if we build this jail, we don’t have control of what’s going on in this prison.

AUDIENCE: I started off as a kid that was out of control, you know, not professional or respected in society. So I joined an organization, afterschool program, and for seven years I haven’t been doing anything that’s negative or incriminating. I’ve been on a positive road and being a role model to a lot of people.

This jail is just putting us into the same statistic that we’ve been in, the same setting. It’s not helping us get out of poverty. And we can use that money to do—there’s many organizations out in Baltimore right now that, if they have much more money, can do a way better job of what they are doing—and they’re doing a good job now.


AUDIENCE: The state right now is in cahoots with private entrepreneurs who are making profits off of all of these buildings and all of these institutions. There’s no way you could hand them over to an institution that is—

UNIDENTIFIED: We’re already there.

AUDIENCE: —running for the profits with private entrepreneurs. The state is stealing all of the money, assigning it to the Department of Corrections and to policing, and taking it away from exactly the kinds of possibilities that the young man is talking about. Building that institution and letting people who have for generations and generations destroyed and used human incarceration to essentially oppress people can’t possibly solve the problem. You just can’t do it. All experienced human research that we’re doing at this conference and Prison Scholars are doing shows that the state is not going to be the institution that will handle the kind of empowerment that the young men have got through the Algebra Project.


SCOTT: The danger is to assume that all children, because of programs, will not commit crimes. I hear what you saying, but it—right now, as it stands, our young people are in trouble. There is a percentage of children, no matter how many resources you put in the community—you can put it in their faces—they’re going to make the choice to do something that’s awful, and nobody says, give up on them. But when they do those awful things, we have to be in a position to provide services for them. But we have to be able to place ourselves in a position to serve these children who do commit these crimes.

TENGELLA: Children who commit crimes need to be helped. You might have to be placed in an institution that will give you therapeutic rehabilitation—we agree on that—and service them properly as children. Child incarceration does not have the infrastructure to bring them out as healthy children, just as a economic tool to empower a greater economic source. We have to shift that paradigm. Just like this country believed a few years ago that wealthy corporations needed some welfare, needed a card to—and some support from the government to continue, billions of dollars, we can shift that paradigm where human beings will get the same treatment.

CHEATOM: This jail isn’t even going to be built, like, shovels in the dirt, finished completing, for three years. So that means for the next three years these children have to be dehumanized in the Baltimore City Detention Center. Right? The Youth Jail Alliance has created alternative action plan that would be implemented in the most the next two years. So these are immediate action solutions that we’re thinking about. And the fact that the state can wait even three years to place these children in another facility when it’s unjust to begin with is a problem. Yes, there will be youth who commit crimes, but let’s put them in the Department of Juvenile Services where’s they’ll—they can get the help that they need that the Department of Corrections are not obligated—nowhere, any written policy anywhere says that they’re obligated to give these children those wraparound services that they truly need.

SCOTT: There is not enough folk in our community that is as concerned as they should be for our children. And until we get that out—I don’t care how much money we put in the community, how many programs we fund. Until there is a reconnect and a reassessment of our relationship as black adults with black children, we will continue to be in the situations we in.

NICHOLAS BRADY, BALTIMORE RESIDENT: It’s called corrections, but that’s a lie, like, that’s a mystification, right? What you have to understand is the historical, like, roots of our justice system comes back from the Jim Crow South. That’s what it comes back from. It comes back from a whole network, basically, of white people operating in a way of saying we’re trying to keep black people fundamentally in line, fundamentally underneath, fundamentally at the bottom of the caste system that we have created inside this society that has its roots in slavery. Black people are about 13, 14 percent of the population. We commit about—the statistics, the highest one says we commit about 15 percent of crimes. We’re 37 percent of people that are arrested, and we’re 74 percent of people that are convicted, and we’re over half of the population that are incarcerated. What you have to understand is that the prison system itself is fundamentally anti-black.

DEVERICK MURRAY, LEADERS OF A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE: The Maryland Correctional Enterprises has benefited highly from all of the production that comes from black boys in Baltimore City. I spent my time down in BCDC, and go in the pen, see one Latino boy and one white boy. Yous understand what I’m saying? And I’ve been in the streets. I’ve been everywhere in Baltimore City. And when I was mostly involved with the worst things that I think I could be involved with, I was out in the county with some young child whose parent make all this money, so that they get frivolously involved in crazy things. When I was home in the hood, it was about providing a meal for family. You understand what I’m saying?

So, yes, those 44 children that we talked about that will actually be in that prison system, we need to find some space in one of these ten prisons that’s already open to put them in, and take that other other money—’cause it’s not an either-or-question—take some of that money and do what’s necessary to make sure we take care of the people that need to be taken care of, but take the rest of that money and put it into preventative services, because I’m a prime example of a child who got extra and who stayed away from those type of things.

We can’t keep worrying about the end of the problem. They get in there at the end of the problem. We have to worry about what is putting them in a position to get into that problem, because it doesn’t make any sense. You study any of the situations, you’ll find that young white men are way more likely to have substance abuse issues. People with substance abuse issues are more likely to commit crimes. You can read the hard data and facts. It’s all about that money.

In a major black city, it’s all about capitalizing off of people who don’t know better. And we know better in this room, and it would do us a disservice in this room to not talk about the both and [sic]. What can we do on all fronts?

CHRISTIAN BAILEY, THE JUST KIDS PARTNERSHIP: I believe that kids commit crimes nowadays simply because they’re bored. You know, you’re putting $100 million into a facility that’s going to cause such a major impact on the city instead of putting that $100 million into positive resources that can keep kids occupied. You know, we have schools that’s closed down, and if they’re not closed down, their resources, such as—history books are missing major pages out of the history books. They have lack of teachers. A lot of teachers have been laid off. I grew up as a troubled teen. You know what I mean? If we put money into resources such as mentoring resources, we can change a lot, because if nobody mentored me, I would be a troubled teen in this system right now. But if somebody mentored me—and I grew up to receive an award from the mayor herself. So we can do things if we put the $100 hundred million into positive resources, not this jail. This jail is just going to cause future problems.

CHEATOM: The Youth Jail Alliance is a coalition of 30 organizations that came together and said, hey, we need to stop this jail. Kenji, you know, was, you know, in Annapolis screaming at the governor, you know, with people to stop this jail as well at one point in time. The alternative action plan actually has—I guess, the capital budget right now that they have, the $104 million allocated for, we have a reallocation budget of what we think they should do with this $104 million, which would include vocational services, rehabbing and refurbing our schools, as well as opportunities like Christian spoke about for our youth, and it’s actually directly outlined in our alternative action plan.

ANNENSON: There is a national trend that we’re seeing these arrests decrease across the state. Currently at the Baltimore City Detention Center there’s only 50 kids sitting there that have been charged as adults. The numbers are going down. There’s no need for us to build this facility. If there’s 50 kids charged as adults, we can find spaces for them at facilities that we currently have. We do not need to spend this money.

MURRAY: In about 2009, they generated about $30 million in profit. And this is all from making furniture for schools in the Maryland higher education system to buy, like Towson University, Coppin, Morgan. All have contracts where they have to buy from Maryland Correctional Enterprises. And they buy desks, chairs, all of those things that inmates are making in the prisons in Maryland.

And so what, you know, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle has been working on and proposing is is that, yes, some of that money from the budget, from the operations budget, the $104 million, needs to go to starting up some of these services, and they need to be maintained by—or the capital budget—they need to be maintained by that money that is generated from Maryland Correctional Enterprises, right? So from now on it’s not a question of we can’t fund it, because you make enough money paying somebody $2 a day to make a whole desk that you sell for $14,000 to a university who has the money coming, because the kids that do make it to college [are] paying back into the system also. Right? So that money should be going back to keep these services. Whatever programs it is that we decide are for prevention should be getting funded by the, you know, slave labor that is being capitalized off in the system, ’cause that money just goes back into the general budget. It’s nothing done for the rehabilitation services of the inmates. And so just as thinking on programmatically, that’s something that we as the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle think should happen.

AUDIENCE: I came here today because I believe that by the time you arrest a child it’s often too late. We should not be living in a society where we’re making 62,000 arrests a year. We should not live in a city where we spend $400 million on policing and $10 million on recreation centers. The $100 million is a drop in the bucket when we’re sitting in a building that cost $305 million of our money. This was fully financed by taxpayers, okay? It’s costing us $15 million a year in interest, only 10 percent, which is covered by the Hilton Corporation. And we haven’t even begun to pay off the principal, which will cost us $636 million, to build a hotel.

I started using drugs when I was in ninth grade. I skipped school consistently, starting in seventh grade. I had a child at the age of 19. You know, I had personal decisions to make. But there’s also a resource. Money is a part of life. And when you’re not giving resources to our children when our neighborhoods are decrepit, when—they don’t have to go to prison to be dealing with hardened criminals. They’re dealing with them every day. And so we have to start thinking about why in a city, in a society, do we incarcerate 2.3 million people in the United States of America. Why do we spend disproportionately more of our money on security apparatus? Because out of fear than on actual preventative services. That’s what this should be all about. We’re not—nobody here should be attacking this man because he has the same heart and soul that we do. The problem is that we have an entire city that is corrupt.

CHRIS GOODMAN, LEAD ORGANIZER, BALTIMORE ALGEBRA PROJECT: This is a larger, a larger issue in—just like with the school, what the state does, with closing schools, and then next year something new, the next year something after that, is to keep us occupied with small things, even though it has major impacts, and that we do need to fight to keep this jail from being built. And at the same time, we need to understand the larger issue, which dates way back from when the Native Americans were slaughtered by the people who came here, and that the motive behind these prisons, the motive behind this capitalist society we live in is based on the destruction and the corruption of the masses, and that we need to destroy the system we live in right now and build something new, and we need to get rid of the people who is in power of making these decisions with the billions and trillions of dollars, and that this fight is a part of the larger fight to transform this whole society at large. And a lot of times we fail to understand and explain that to the person sitting next to us, because we could have a huge march, a huge protest, get arrested. But then we’ve got to build up. There’s, like, ten people at the next meeting because we don’t understand the larger vision that we need a revolution, we need to transform the society at large because the people in power are here to kill us, destroy us. So that’s all I wanted to say.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us on our first town hall on youth in the criminal justice system in Baltimore. I’ll just leave you with one thought. A Casey Foundation report found that states which lowered juvenile confinement rates the most from 1997 to 2007 saw a greater decline in juvenile violent crime arrests than states which increased incarceration rates over the same period. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network. And join us for the next town hall from Baltimore.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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