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Freedom for Whom?

By Rhina Ramos, Director of Programs, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Oakland, CA

Living out one’s faith is a call to promote freedom for all.  In our society, however, freedom too often appears to be the privilege of those with power and opportunities.  An example:  youth of color from marginalized communities comprise 87% of those imprisoned in California’s juvenile detention centers, with many serving jail time for crimes better addressed through rehabilitation and prevention programs. A kid locked away in an isolated cell has little opportunity to become a healthier adult.

Enter The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and its Families for Books Not Bars outreach program.  Named for an unsung hero of the civil rights movement who inspired and guided emerging leaders, the center organizes the state’s largest network of families of incarcerated youth and champions alternatives to California’s costly, broken youth prison system.

Young people locked away in California’s youth prisons face horrors most of us can only imagine.  For the past year, Families for Books Not Bars members have shared horror stories about the extreme isolation and brutal use of unwarranted, degrading and inhumane force their children faced while in the state’s care.  Although California’s youth prison system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), is charged with providing rehabilitation and treatment, incarcerated youth are routinely kept in solitary confinement, denied access to education and substance abuse programs and sex offender treatment programs, and provided inadequate meals.  Those with mental health illnesses are routinely maced.  Recent findings by experts involved in the Farrell v. Cate lawsuit against the DJJ confirm these experiences and expose many other abuses.  In June, the state’s own audit found that DJJ locked young people in their cells for 23 or more hours per day in 249 incidents over a 15-week period.  In one case, a youth was let out of his cell for only one hour over a period of 10 days.  A system that promotes violence and  recreates trauma is unable to rehabilitate.

No one deserves such treatment.  We can do better for our youth.  For more information, please contact Owen Li at 510-285 8243 or owen@ellabakercenter.org.  You can also visit our website www.ellabakercenter.org.

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