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Jesse Jackson Rallies Against Youth Jail

200 people speak out against the O’Malley-backed project

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano

Rev. Jesse Jackson in Baltimore


Two days after sweeping victories for Democrats on Election Day, Jesse Jackson visited Baltimore for a “Reallocate to Recreate” rally to stop a planned $70 million youth detention center. “We will not win on Tuesday and lose on Thursday,” the two-time presidential candidate said to about 200 people in War Memorial Building.

The Nov. 8 rally took on the air of a tent revival as the crowd clapped and shouted “Tell it” to speakers and singers. They told it.

Sheila Parker came at the request of her church, Douglas Memorial. “My son is 10,” she said. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to him.”

The rally organizers set up a giant checker game, a mini bowling alley, and a putting green to contrast what they want with what’s planned. The kids knocked over pins and tossed a sponge lacrosse ball around outside the door.

People sang “Wade in the Water,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and “The Greatest Love.” Antonio Ellis, 16, recited a poem ending with “We are more than The Wire. We are Baltimore.”

Opposition to the planned 120-bed youth detention center began more than a year ago. Occupy Baltimore staged a tent city on the cleared site last fall. The movement has grown into a powerful organization, with most of the Baltimore City legislative delegation and City Council in its corner. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon has also spoken out against the youth jail. The O’Malley administration points to a federal consent decree requiring that the city’s dilapidated and dangerous jail be upgraded. Currently, juveniles charged as adults are housed in the same building as adults charged with felonies. The Sun has published exposés on conditions inside.

Jail opponents agree that the detention center is in bad shape, but say the money earmarked for a new facility could be better spent on recreation, education, and other social services to prevent juvenile crime.

“Jack [Young, City Council president,] just reminded me that they want to build the jail in my district,” City Councilman Carl Stokes told the gathering. “What we want to build in this district is young people’s lives.” He notes that the proposed $70 million facility is “three times as big as the one they have now, because they’ve already determined that that’s where they want to put our children.”

Indeed, the anti-jail protests rest on the premise that African-American children end up there for no particular reason or for reasons beyond their control. “The money that is going to the jail should go to our kids instead,” said Del. Barbara Robinson (D-Baltimore City). “They say that it will have a state-of-the-art school. They say that it will have a state-of-the-art recreation center. I’ve never known a child who wants to go to jail to get those things.”

“If they build it, they will fill it,” Young told the crowd. “I say ‘Hell no’ to the jail.”

Activists believe that money spent on recreation will prevent crime.

“If we spend this money on opportunity, there won’t be any youth to lock up,” said Vernon Crowffey, a youth organizer with rally co-organizer, the Safe and Sound Campaign. In and out of jail by 10th grade, Crowffey says he trained as a carpenter and now specializes in building greenhouses. A person his name and age has a second-degree assault charge pending in District Court, according to online court records. The trial date is Nov. 15.

Pastor Todd Yeary, who invited Jackson to address the Baltimore movement, emphasized the actions that must be taken beyond the rally. “Our cause is right but our plan must be complete,” he said, urging a focus on education, training, and strengthening families.

Jackson asked the crowd to chant after him: “Stop the violence. Save the children.” He said he had spoken earlier to middle-school children and told them the state was building a jail for them, so “you have to make choices.” Jackson said he had asked the kids how many had a working parent and that almost none of them did. “Does it stand to reason that a jail becomes a homeless shelter?” Jackson asked. He said a group of gang members in Chicago had recently met with him, looking for work after getting out of prison. “They go to school, they get five meals a week,” Jackson said. “In jail, they get 21.”

With a 40 percent unemployment rate, Jackson said, “the community is in jail.”

Jackson said he had met with O’Malley and asked him to help devise a plan to rebuild 10,000 of the city’s vacant and abandoned houses—a figure that coincidentally matches Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s goal for her two-year-old “Vacants to Value” initiative. “Why not a plan to reconstruct 10,000 houses—not a detention center,” Jackson said. “Let the people build the houses. Let the people lay the bricks. Let the people find security.”

The crowd began to disperse as Safe and Sound’s Tyrone Barnwell urged them to call and email O’Malley’s office. “Let’s flood the governor’s phone lines,” he told the departing crowd.

“Contact your neighborhood organization,” Barnwell added. “Make sure your community rec center has put in their application for their share of the jail money.”

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