In May, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced his intention to close the last three state-run youth prisons in a revised budget proposal. The first phase would be to stop the entrance of any new detainees starting January 1, 2021, and begin the process to shut down from there.
This move to close the remaining youth prisons may come in part as a response to the economic impact of COVID-19, but for juvenile justice reform advocates, this announcement means much more. Activists at organizations like the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights fought alongside families of incarcerated youth for many years to close five of California’s youth prisons.
YR Media’s Teoman Tezcan spoke with Executive Director Zach Norris about how this change in California could impact the youth justice system now and in the long run — both on the local and national level.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Teoman Tezcan: What was your first reaction and the reaction from others in the Ella Baker Center community to Governor Newsom’s plan?
Zach Norris: We were excited and elated because we fought a decade-long campaign to close all of California’s state-run prisons. We definitely believe that there’s a great opportunity to move in a better direction.
The reality is that it’s been community-based organizations that have held these systems accountable. As we continue to invest in community-based organizations, we will continue to see a more effective practice that actually helps hold young people accountable and help them do better in the future.
However, it’s not a done deal. If you’re reading this, we would greatly appreciate you calling your legislator, and letting them know that you support the closure of these youth prisons and you support investment in community-based organizations.
TT: The coronavirus is obviously affecting everyone’s lives right now in major ways. How do you think the pandemic has affected, if at all, the decision-making process to shut down the last youth prisons?
ZN: We’re in what is probably going to be described as the Great Depression of this century. It would be a mistake to believe that this economic environment doesn’t have something to do with all of the changes that are being proposed inside the governor’s budget. The reality is that the state believes that there is insufficient revenue to sustain the state’s [spending]. What we need to do is take a step back in this moment and ask ourselves, how did that happen?
From 1980 to 2000, the state of California built 23 new prisons and just one new university, and I think we got what we paid for as a state. What I think we need to do at this moment moving forward is really not continue to throw money at this huge prison building boom that has actually hurt the state’s finances and made our communities less safe.
TT: For young people who are currently in those last three facilities that are closing down, how will this change impact them?
ZN: My understanding is that admissions will stop after a certain date, so there will be a phased closure, which I think will allow the process of actually strengthening community oversight at the local level.
Across the state of California, there are juvenile justice and delinquency prevention commissions, which are basically everyday people who are responsible for inspecting youth facilities at the local level and ensuring effective youth justice at the local level. Those kinds of entities need to be strengthened as well. We need additional resources to support young people who will be coming back to their communities.
TT: Why is this closure important for young people in the justice system?
ZN: It’s important for young people who are in the justice system as well as for young people who recently got out. It’s also important for adults who find themselves in prisons across the state of California who went through that youth prison system that has been known to do not much more than prepare young people for adult prisons.
There are young people for whom this is incredibly important because it will mean that [fewer] young people will be going to a system that has isolated them from their family, that has repeatedly been a source of abuse and neglect.
TT: What are some other major movements happening around the country in terms of juvenile justice reform?
ZN: The Youth First Initiative has been doing incredible work supporting advocacy campaigns in states across the country — pushing this issue and saying that we can do better by young people. A number of youth facilities have closed, including some in red states. Large foundations like the Annie E. Casey Foundation have been supportive and calling for the closure of youth prisons across the country.
TT: If this goes through, and California does shut down all of its youth prisons, how will this move affect other similar efforts across the country?
ZN: I’m excited to hopefully see the closure of the rest of California’s youth prisons. And then be able to go to state after state to connect with other youth advocacy campaigns, and organize their families and young people and say, “If this is possible in one of the largest states in the country, it’s possible in your state as well.”
We can have a different vision of youth justice in this country. I’m really excited about what this could mean, not just for California, but the nation as a whole. California could be a leader in terms of youth justice practice, and we know that this will mean a safer and more prosperous California.
TT: You highlighted earlier that this is not yet a done deal, so what’s left to be done?
ZN: Those legislators in your district are hearing from some of these large entities that have a vested financial stake in continuing the status quo — even though it hasn’t been effective, even though it’s been abusive of young people.
[Legislators] need to hear from you. They need to hear from young people. They need to hear from families. They need to hear from formerly incarcerated people. They need to hear from teachers and nurses who have seen the way in which throwing money at prisons as the funds for education and health care have continued to decline has made us less safe as a whole.