Saturday, March 10, 2007

Alameda County's New Detention Center

With a view most of us could only wish for, Alameda Country Juvenile Justice Center is just below Camp Sweeney, yet near John George Psychiatric Hospital and Alameda County Animal Control Center --I won't even comment on the obvious linguistic connotations. Saturday afternoon the full parking lot and smiling faces were an incongruent blight on the lives of the 200 children --girls and boys about to call this place home April 1.

I was surprised at my own lethargy. The idea that this was a place built to lock up children ages 12-18 left me full of sorrow. It was so sad. Then when I saw the cells --just like the adult models--in the maximum security section where kids weren't allowed contact visits, it was like wow, how can we keep the kids out of here?

How much money did this place cost the tax payers? A mere $176 million to house 360 youth at capacity--200 beds are already full. Why isn't this art budget $2,381,340 and $1,666,940, going into public education to keep the kids from coming here in the first place?

The architect said three youth got jobs connected to the design and construction of this place. But that's just three out of too many left without alternative choices.

There was a promotional video where the artists talked about interacting with the children to find out what they liked and what they wanted to see. James Gayles also conducted workshops with some of the boys. But the children's art is not what we see inside.

This is a prison folks, I wanted to scream. One woman when told the current facility was built on land where Camp Chabot once sat, asked if "the camp" was a part of Parks and Rec. It was unreal.

Outside of facility huge sculptures: "Hope Destination Sculpture" and "Tree of Life Gateway," sat in the landscaped garden, while tiny ceramic insects decorated the sidewalk--a place none of the children would see until released, I suppose.

Prison staff showed me a few of the entrances the incarcerated youth are brought in. The court rooms were all closed and off limits today, but there were several. I didn't make it to the basement where I was told the gym was and the rooms looked a little less sterile.

The new facility is self-contained; the kids never have to leave, all services are under one roof. Perhaps this is a tax savings? Maybe the kids liked having to travel to least it was somewhere else.

I've been inside 850 Bryant and the open rooms looked just like the adult versions there also. Checker and chess diagrams on tables, the exercise yards all had murals with images of girls swimming or positive imagery some combined with words.

Though not heavy handed the goal was clear--reality check. Stop and consider your choices. How did you get here? Now how do you leave and stay free?

Most of the staff was of African descent, and I was told most of the kids are kids of color--
over 90 percent. Though much planning went into revisioning the way society looks at child offenders, I wondered why anyone would believe that incarceration ever worked if it's ineffective in the adult population.

Locking people up is not working for the parents of many of these children, why should it be the strategy used to correct aberrant behavior in their children?

A few friends had to leave before seeing the entire facility which is huge. Another person looked like he was about to cry when he saw the tiny cells, the control center where the doors are locked electronically, the officers at the stations in the center of the pods where the children were housed.

I missed the cafeteria, the gym as I said and the minimal security area. A woman whose has served time as a youth offender said the art reflected the lives of the children who were going to see it, yet why couldn't such art be commissioned for children who are not locked up, children who never see themselves projected in popular culture in a positive or transformative way?

One official in the video said the judicial system was doing a service for society...I was kind of blown away. A service? Locking kids up, whether the prison has art on the walls or not is still locking them up. She needs to be working herself out of a job, not into early retirement with benefits.

Again, it was unreal and the voices and the faces and the spirits of the youth just below us in the older facility were the ones whose voices were silent today. There were no interviews perhaps because of their ages, but they could have remained anonymous and sent their comments in writing. I distrust adults who say they have the best interests of the children at heart, but refuse to let them speak.

Prisons are obsolete. We need to shut them all down, especially the pretty one on Fairmount Drive in San Leandro that looks like the Orson Wells' "1984" version of the Ministry of Justice. Remember what happened to the protagonist there?


At 12:47 PM, Blogger TaSin said...

good story. i agree. you described the feeling of the prison art opening perfectly.


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