Jail, Social Prison…Or?

from the 4th issue:

A Call for an Anarchist Response to the Construction of the Youth Jail at
12th and Alder

“Migration Management cannot be attacked, but what can be attacked are the
concrete embodiments, structures and people that make it possible”
           - “Nothing is Finished: Essays from the Anti-Prison Struggle in
Belgium” *

For the past year the City of Seattle has been in the planning stage of
building a new “Children and Family Justice Center” (CFJC) at the site of
the current youth jail at 12th and Alder. The new facility’s name and much
of the rhetoric obscures the fact that one of the central functions of the
new construction will be creating more cages to put black and brown youth
in. Nevertheless, it would be shortsighted to simply understand this
project as the creation of another jail.  The state has already
anticipated arguments from leftist organizations and community groups that
jails ‘don’t work’. In fact, the state recognizes this reality and is
shifting its approach in response to it. Jails are increasingly becoming
an inefficient means of regulating the lives of black, brown, poor, and/or
trans* people. To critique the prison system because it ‘doesn’t work’ is
to be sucked into the states logic and to ignore the fact that a ‘working’
criminal justice system is a system that effectively reproduces a world
built on domination, violence, and racism.
For progressive bourgeois Seattlites, however, this new project looks like
a common sense approach to dealing with ‘criminals’ that is clean and
rehabilitative. In addition to the construction of a 154-room detention
center, the CFJC is proposed to “make the criminal justice system work” by
providing access to “mentoring and support services, education and
employment services for youth on probation,” as well as a number of
alternative-to-incarceration programs for young people who would otherwise
face jail time. [a full description of the project can be found at
It is not surprising that the levy to fund the CFJC passed. The rhetoric
surrounding it fits nicely into a liberal view of prison reform and
progressive partial decarceration. It acknowledges that some people do not
‘deserve’ to be in prison because they can be reformed by either being
given better opportunities or given the skills to ‘make better choices.’
This rhetoric is appealing to liberals who congratulate themselves and
sleep well at night because its implementation in Seattle has already
significantly decreased the population of the juvenile detention center.
In the past decade, alternative-to-detention programs, ‘community courts’,
and ‘problem-solving justice’ initiatives have ‘worked,’ decreasing the
number of prisoners and lowering of the rate of recidivism.
While it would be absurd and reactionary to condemn putting less people in
prison, we refuse to listen to the deceptive lullaby that is the state’s
narrative of ‘progress.’ Let’s respond to the small concessions of the
state by spitting in its face, not by asking to suck its toes.
The product of a decreased prison population and lower rates of recidivism
is not freedom from domination, but rather domination in another form,
namely increased surveillance, monitoring, and control for the same people
who would have been filling jail cells. Family courts, drug treatment
courts, youth-led peer courts, and punitive social services all work to
rehabilitate those who can assimilate back into society to be functioning,
whitewashed productive subjects. Their stated objective is to ‘increase
youth investment’ in the criminal justice system.  This system of control
further reinforces the division between the ‘criminal’ and the ‘good
citizen’ by insisting that the ‘criminal’ can be ‘saved’ and can become a
‘good citizen’. However the mutability of these categories is a farce. The
idealized good citizen in Amerikkka has always been a white, cismale,
wealthy, and able-bodied subject. The state has defined the category of
‘criminal’ in practice as black, trans*, poor, and undocumented. It should
be no surprise then that as the prison population has decreased the
disproportionate incarceration of black and brown youth has increased.
These new methods of control often mean that instead of serving a short
sentence for getting in a fight after school, a 16-year-old kid will be
funneled into a system of punitive social services for a much longer
period of time with the threat of jail hanging over their head. The state
has no power without the threat of force. So we see that the ‘alternative
to incarceration’ is entirely dependent on the threat of force that looms
behind it – the ever-present possibility of a prison sentence. Concretely,
this looks like trading a few nights in jail for months or even years
reporting to a social worker, being in court-mandated therapy sessions,
having attendance and grades monitored, regular drug testing, and
community service. Who would engage in this kind of process without a pig
pushing them against a wall and reaching for their handcuffs? All of these
techniques make the ever-expanding snares of racist social control and
assimilation look like “progress.”
Unsurprisingly, it has been liberals and radical prison abolitionists
alike that have been the torch runners of this new expanded disciplinary
logic. Less prisons, more state-based ‘transformative justice’. Let’s just
say it. In this case, transformative justice means the further
transformation of Amerikkka into a social prison.  In the struggle against
the CFJC there have been few voices heard outside of the state, its
collaborative muses: NGO coalitions, and liberal groups that claim to
represent the community. We have no interest in justice meted out by the
state and it’s pigs, managers, and executioners. We know the state cannot
be rationally persuaded to abolish its systems of control. We don’t have
to choose between jail and social prison. Let’s refuse both.

* This is from a collection of essays against the construction of an
immigration detention center in Belgium. The struggle against migration
‘management’ is also the struggle against prison society.
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