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Activists oppose new Seattle jail proposal

By Emily Holt

Published: Friday, February 6, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, August 19, 2009

News-Jail-Forum-Clara.jpg

Clara Ganey | The Spectator

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect an error in the name and title of Catherine Cornwall. We regret and apologize for the error.

The City of Seattle's proposal for a new jail is not sitting lightly with vocal members of the community. Last Thursday, Pigott Auditorium was at maximum capacity with opponents of the proposed $200 million project.

Community activists responded with the "Stop the Jail" forum to discuss alternative options to a jail, state budgetary concerns and the current state of the jail population. They developed an initiative to oppose the jail plan and need over 17,000 votes to put it on the ballot next November.

When Silja J.A. Talvi, an investigative journalist who specializes in research on the prison system, asked the audience to raise their hand if they or someone that they knew had been in prison, 80 percent of the audience put up their hand.

"Mass incarceration is one of, if not the, big civil rights issue in the U.S.," Talvi said.

The crowd was riled when panelists spoke out against the proposed closures of local elementary schools, which were confirmed in a School Board vote Thursday night.

"I think democracy fails when we close schools and open jails," said Jessie Hagopian, a Seattle public schools teachers, community organizer and education journalist.

Currently, the King County Jail is the only one in Seattle. Last May, lawyers representing a former King County inmate sued the jail for fostering poor health conditions. Over the course of five months last year, 65 inmates contracted staph infections.

But Catherine Cornwall, a senior policy analyst for the Office of Policy and Planning, said the new jail would not be in response to conditions in the county jail.

The contract for the King County jail ends in 2013, leaving the county without enough existing jail space to house misdemeanor inmates. The county told cities they should plan on building replacement jails.

Seattle needs 445 beds, while northern and eastern cities estimate they will need 200 beds collectively.

Cornwall said studies will be done on the proposed construction to see if it qualifies. The city is currently in the process of evaluating the environmental impact of the jail placement and will complete its report by 2010. Several sites have been named as the potential location, including Interbay, South Seattle, Bellevue and Shoreline. Local residents in each area have protested the construction.

The activists who gathered at Seattle U saw the issue of jail space as indicative of larger social issues.

Jessie Hagiopian, former Seattle public school teacher and journalist, said society too often focuses on short-term fixes, profit and the status quo.

"When there is $200 million to spend on a jail, there is enough money for schools," Hagiopian said. "We need a few remaining jail spaces just for those who refuse to put resources into education."

The School Board estimates it will save $16 million this year in operating costs by closing several local schools.

Alexis Harris, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington, has investigated pre-arrest diversion programs, which she says are far less costly than county jail maintenance. She said it takes $58,000 to send someone through the county jail system.

She said one such alternative program, the Clean Dreams Program, costs $8,000 to give aid and assistance to those who committed misdemeanors and has an 18 percent recidivism rate.

"We actually help people, but I don't think is a too lefty progressive ideal," Harris said.

King County and Seattle currently spend $300 million each year on treatment for arrested offenders, including services for mental health, chemical dependency and programs to end homelessness. The county also operates a Drug Court which serves approximately 550 people at any given time and has Mental Health Courts for stabilizing individuals.

"I don't know if there is a lot of awareness of current treatments," said Cornwall.

She said that no one ever really wants to build a new jail but added it is unreasonable to get jail numbers down to zero.

"There needs to be someplace for domestic violence and drunk driving misdemeanors to be diverted," Cornwall said.

Some of the panelists called for complete abolition of the jail and prison system, but Talvi said she does not.

"I do believe there actually needs to be a place for some people to be kept away from society if they are doing harm to themselves or others," Talvi said. "But that is not to say that human rights should be violated."

She found in her research that conditions in jails and prisons are often rough for women.

Dean Spade, an assistant professor of law at Seattle University, said prison conditions are worse for transgender individuals because they are not counted by the prison systems. Spade, a female to male transsexual, spent a day in jail for trying to relieve himself in public.

"The biggest homophobe is the criminal justice system," Spade said. "There is nothing salvageable about the criminal justice system as it is."

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