The Jail Seattle Doesn’t Need

The city of Seattle is planning to construct a new municipal jail at a cost of more than $200 million. At the same time, five public schools are slated for closure, and budgets for social services, including effective pre-arrest diversion programs, are being slashed.

A coalition of groups spearheaded by the city’s homeless newspaper Real Change and the Real Change Organizing Project are uniting to oppose this decision. Activists are gathering signatures for Initiative 100, which would pose the issue to voters on the November ballot. We talked with Tim Harris, the executive director of the Real
Change paper, about the new jail and the political forces behind it.

WHY IS the city trying to build a new jail? What is their argument for it, and what do you think are the real reasons behind it?

THE CITY’S talking point is pretty simple. They say they would rather not, but they’re between a rock and a hard place. In 1999, the county told them that by 2012, they’d run out of space, and the city would have to find its own solution.

That changed. The projections for those incarcerated came in significantly lower because of programs that reduced the number of people in jail. But there was already a lot of investment in planning and institutional commitment to going down this path.

There is also potential financial self-interest. Rather than contract beds out to the county, which is a budgetary drain, here’s the possibility for the city to have its own facility, which they could subcontract to Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), for instance. There’s some evidence that there have been discussions about subletting jail space for detaining immigrants, which would be positive cash flow.

There is a pattern of privatization with municipal jails that have been funded through bond issues that is very predictable. There’s a huge interest in filling the beds because, if you don’t, it goes from a positive to a negative cash flow. It’s a “build it, and they will fill it” situation.

IF THEY build it, who will they fill it with?

WHENEVER THEY talk about who is going to be in this jail, they talk about perpetrators of domestic violence and drunk drivers, for which the law mandates incarceration. Those are a couple of fairly unsympathetic groups of people, but this is a classic city of Seattle straw-man argument. They set up this extreme version of what reality is, which is more or less wholly fabricated.

There is this third rail inherent in the issue, of race and class, that the city has studiously avoided. The largest category of crime represented in the daily jail population are drug crimes, and the war on drugs disproportionately targets the African American community and people who are economically marginalized, and turn to street activity as a survival tactic.

Seattle disproportionately incarcerates African Americans at a rate of 10 times their representation in the population at large. You have a population that has been left behind by globalization, left behind by the civil rights movement, and left behind by the education system increasingly targeted for incarceration.

There is also a criminalization of the homeless that the shelter system doesn’t have capacity for. We’ve consistently documented about one-third more homeless people in Seattle than there is capacity for in the emergency shelter system. There literally is no place for these people to go. Yet we have to blame the victim. Those people will also be in this new facility.

DOES THE push to build a jail have anything to do with the discussion lately in city government about cracking down on minor offenses like public urination and panhandling–the so-called quality-of-life argument?

IT ABSOLUTELY has everything to do with the [former New York Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani “broken windows theory” of how to respond to the deepening contradictions brought on by extreme inequality. Cities everywhere are dealing with this problem. The nature of cities has changed in response to globalization.

The nearly complete collapse of manufacturing in this country has had an impact on urban economies, where suddenly, the source of employment for less-skilled, less-educated people has largely been shifted overseas. You have a much more challenging situation for the less advantaged in urban economies and much higher rates of unemployment–and this has hit the African American community harder than ever.

On the other hand, you have cities becoming islands of affluence. Urban living is the option of choice for those who can afford it. The relation between the city and the suburbs has shifted, so that the suburbs are now places for people who can’t afford to live in the city.

There’s been gentrification, a rise in land values and an increase in density of urban areas driven by condo booms in every major city. Cities have become centers of upscale consumption, cultural consumption and employment for the professional middle class who now prefer to live in urban areas.

On the other side of that, you have increased poverty that is a result of a whole class of people being written off. And there’s visible poverty that makes the affluent class uneasy and nervous.

So there’s a contradiction to manage. The broken windows theory identifies those who are visibly poor in the urban environment as an “other,” as a problem on a par with a broken window or graffiti that needs to be removed from public view, because it creates a downward spiral that erodes quality of living, leads to more crime and consequently reduced land values.

The response has been a whole constellation of quality-of-life ordinances, including laws against panhandling, against public feeding of poor people and homeless encampment sweeps. For an extreme example, in Santa Cruz, Calif., it is illegal to have a blanket in public. You cannot have a shopping cart.

There are other equally draconian examples. What we see throughout the U.S., and more immediately within the West Coast group of homeless organizers we work with, is a very uniform experience. We see increased policing of the very poor along with an outlawing of survival efforts.

IF SEATTLE continues down this road of criminalizing poverty and decides to go ahead with the new jail, what should we expect in the future?

WHAT’S FUNDAMENTALLY at stake here and everywhere is our vision of the future. We’re sliding down a path of a continual increase in the numbers of incarcerated and homeless, continual impoverishment on the lower end of the scale, continual erosion of the middle class and the increased economic vulnerability that comes along with that. More vulnerability to falling over the edge, into that class of people who exist in the land of no return.

There is a lot of mystification around the homelessness issue. You get these complete BS reports out of Washington and the Department of Housing and Urban Development that have all this rosy news about how homelessness is being ended. Anybody who is on the ground dealing with homelessness and seeing the reality knows that there are more people, that the desperation has increased, that things are worse now than they have ever been. This rosy view that things are working is a big smokescreen to placate people.

Homelessness cannot be ended without addressing the root causes that are driving it, that have to do with the economies of labor, and who wins and who loses in this system. The government isn’t going to address that, because it can’t without threatening itself.

So the response that you see is one of appearing to address homelessness that is really about maintaining their own political legitimacy. They cannot ignore the moral crisis of homelessness without appearing unjust and illegitimate. They cannot address the crisis of homelessness without going to these root causes, which they’re institutionally ill-equipped to do anything about.

A theologian named Walter Bruggeman says that situations of cultural acceptance breed accommodating complacency. I think that is the core insight that applies to the times we live in.

As a culture, we have accommodated ourselves to what, at a glance, should be a completely unacceptable reality. There are institutions in place whose primary purpose is to make that accommodation acceptable, to lull us into the sense that things are more or less okay, that the system is functioning normally, and that there is a kind of benign welfare state that is doing its best to take care of people.

That is all an ideological smokescreen. The reality is that about 10 percent of us have been completely written off, thrown to the wolves and have no alternative but to continually cycle through survival systems. Just bare subsistence survival activity–the desperation of which would blow most people’s minds if they really understood it–vulnerability to incarceration, and very little prospect of ever escaping that system. That is the core reality of our time, that anybody who has a sense of universal love and concern for their fellow human beings should be completely outraged by.

What we see in the Third World should give us all nightmares. There’s been radical growth of urban slums in the Third World over the last two decades–also a response to the global economy, where globalization has driven the rural poor into the containment of the urban slums. The larger ones are 25-40 million people who are living in these shantytowns, where people are living in toxic waste dumps of low-value land, which means floodplains, earthquake-prone slopes, cities built on shit, literally. Smells horrible, no infrastructure, rampant disease. It is a vision of Dante’s hell.

The reason we don’t have more of that here–although I do think we’re starting to see it–is that some of those contested urban spaces are still being contested. And the containment systems are less visible, but are equally horrendous–for instance, the conditions within the prison system, where rape is casually accepted as an unofficial method of dehumanization, of discipline really.

The expansion of maximum-security institutions, in which people are subjected to a form of ongoing torture; the acceptance of dehumanizing conditions within emergency shelter systems–they’re different containment systems that dehumanize in different ways.

So one future is continuing along that trajectory. And the economic collapse in the U.S. offers the potential that that curve will again shoot up. In recent years, the rates of growth in incarceration and homelessness have declined slightly–they haven’t stopped growing, but they’re growing less rapidly.

But our capacity to mitigate this disaster through the provision of human services–which at least offers some sort of a lifeline to those who are most vulnerable–is being reduced, and horrendous cuts are on the table. So we’re very likely to see an acceleration in all these trends.

WHAT’S THE alternative?

AN ALTERNATE vision is that we recognize the path that we’re on and have a bottom-up political movement that is in our mutual self-interest. Because poor people are not alone in being negatively affected by this. When you dehumanize a large sector of a population, we all become vulnerable to that sort of dehumanization. Because the trend we’re on–with the top 10th of 1 percent having their wealth accelerate at ridiculous and unacceptable levels at the expense of the rest of us–is unsustainable.

We have to have a system-wide response, which goes across issue, class and race and overcomes divisions where we’re all activists working in our issues, as if tax reform had nothing to do with environmentalism. As if homelessness had nothing to do with welfare rights. As if affordable housing issues had nothing to do with incarceration.

We have to create a unified movement that has a core around reducing inequality, moving toward an equalization of the distribution of wealth and eliminating or radically curbing the corporate control of the democratic process, whereby democracy has been captured by the corporate class and turned into simply another tool to defend the bottom line.

Social change only happens–and history is clear on this–through bottom-up organizing that is capable of threatening power. Frederick Douglass was right: “Power yields nothing without a demand.” We have to create that grassroots demand, we have to unify, we have to recognize how dire the alternative is, and create a paradigm shift that brings us to a future of economic sustainability.

We need a system that not only meets the needs of the very poor, but also provides more stability to the middle class. And it needs to come at the expense of the rich–that is just the baseline reality. There’s no other way to do the math: rich people have got to have less, and we have to recognize that.

We have a limited window in which that is possible, because there really is a tipping point, a point of no return. But we have this window right now, and when that window exists, it is the role of people who are organizers and activists, who understand this sort of thing, to push as hard and as fast as we possibly can, because that window doesn’t occur very often, and there’s a pendulum that’s going to swing back. We will get as much out of this political moment as we are able to demand and push for and threaten.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements is an amazing book. It so resonated with me as a poor people’s organizer. They analyze four different movements in this century. Their essential conclusion was that organizers do not create movements; political moments in history create movements.

The role of organizers during those in-between times–which is most of the time–is to build and strengthen their institutions, so that when the moment arrives, we are in a position to be able to push as hard and fast as we can. Because during the downtime, we’ve been doing the base-building. And this is the moment; this is the time.

HOW DO you think activists can stop the jail from being built?

THE JAIL in Seattle is a fast-moving freight train, a race of institutional self-interest paying little to no regard to the supposed processes of democratic input and engaging the community.

Initiatives are a great tool for when democratic processes have failed. It’s a form of direct democracy that forces accountability. But the challenges are just enormous. Roughly speaking, we’ve got until May to collect 23,000 signatures to have a hope of getting on the November ballot. That is going to take a huge mobilization of highly invested people.

Beyond that, this needs to be about using the initiative as an opportunity to do movement-building and build unified political power that alters the landscape in which this decision is being made, which should be under the riveted eyes of a city that understands what is at stake. They’re operating under the cover of bureaucratic dark and citizen ignorance. We have to make them respond to a mobilized base of constituents. That’s what it’s going to take to win.

The city has done its level best to keep this as a below-the-radar issue which is seldom in the news and, when it is, it’s on this narrow question of where are we going to site this new jail, as opposed to whether we should be building it at all. They try to turn it into this technocratic zoning issue that only involves the communities where they plan to site it, playing communities off each other and using a divide-and-conquer strategy.

The initiative offers us the opportunity to expose the municipal jail for what it really means in our community. We need to talk about this. Is this road that Seattle wants to go down? Does this make sense in terms of our spending priorities? We’re talking about a facility that will cost $200 million to build and at least $19 million per year to maintain.

The school budget shortfall this year was some $37 million. The school closures will save $3.6 million. When you stack those numbers up, and when you look at the direct connection between the level of education and vulnerability to incarceration, particularly as it affects the African American community, this proposal for how to use the city resources should be unacceptable.

The stakes in this fight are huge. Not just for Seattle, but also what winning here would mean. We can offer an example that the trajectory we’re on is not inevitable. This is not a law of nature, where there’s nothing you can do about it. This is a political choice. If we can win here, I think we can offer hope to people in other places that there is a different way.

Chris Mobley and Leela Yellesetty write for the Socialist Worker.