After much uproar from Baltimore City residents and community leaders, a $104 million juvenile detention facility is still scheduled to be built in East Baltimore.

But not without a fight.

Hundreds gathered at Dunbar High School’s football field on Oct. 31 to protest the jail’s construction in an event the Rev. Heber Brown III and youth organizers from Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Baltimore Algebra Project and others deemed Youth Justice Sunday. They demanded that funding for the youth jail be redirected to schools, parks and recreation, mentorship programs and other outlets to nurture youth before they commit crimes.

The two-hour rally was culminated by a fervent march to the proposed jail site. Yelling “liberation not incarceration,” the predominately adolescent protestors used bolt cutters to peel away the chain fence to the property and planted signs that read “Money for jobs and education, not jails” inside.

Construction plans for the jail are at a standstill until the state determines a solid bed count – previous proposals said between 180 and 230 – and gains final approval from the Board of Public Works. But assessments should be drafted in the next few weeks.

The three-member Board of Public Works – Gov. Martin O’Malley, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot – is expected to set a firm construction date.

The prison will house Baltimore City youth, male and female, serving sentences as adults. Today, those juveniles serve time in the Baltimore City Detention Center with little separation from adult offenders, a city rule the U.S. Dept. of Justice criticized in 2006.

State officials say a new jail separating juveniles from adults will yield a safer environment and satisfy justice department officials, who reported that conditions in the existing juvenile justice center violate the constitutional rights of the inmates.

The facility’s contentious development put O’Malley at odds with city residents, specifically in the Black community, during his rally for reelection.

The Youth Justice Rally is at least the second protest against the jail. Back in June, picketers gathered outside City Hall to contest its construction. Petitions are circling the city, leaders have urged residents to reevaluate gubernatorial candidates and anti-youth jail websites are popping up online.

But Shaun Adamec, spokesman for the governor’s office, says there is little room for debate. “What happens now is juveniles that are tried as adults go to adult prisons. That’s actually against federal law.”

There is no need for protests or rallies, he said, because the governor’s office is working closely with juvenile justice advocates to have “ongoing” and “active” conversations.

But Brown says he wasn’t contacted by the state and doesn’t know anyone that was. “How do you say that you are working with the community when many don’t even know about this jail?” he said, calling the proposed facility a “slave ship.” “The black community is tired of being a political football.”

“The construction of a new youth juvenile detention facility does not demonstrate a willingness to fundamentally change the conditions that produce incarcerated youth,” said Davyon Love, Towson State senior and president of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

Love and other rally organizers are calling for youth charged as adults to serve time in the existing juvenile center, which they said would save money and allow federal regulation.

Adamec contests, “These are juveniles charged with murder, rape, and assault – these aren’t kids caught stealing gun.”

He says the new facility will house serious offenders who should be separated from their non-violent peers.

In a letter to the Baltimore Safe and Sound Campaign, O’Malley voiced similar sentiments. “The fact that they are juveniles makes it inappropriate under federal law to serve them in a traditional adult facility; the serious and often violent nature of their crimes (also) makes it inappropriate to serve them in a detention setting with other juveniles charged with less serious … offenses.”

While Gov. O’Malley often takes blows for the proposed detention center, the Department of Justice reprimanded the city’s existing youth jail five months before he took office. Planning for the proposed facility began in 2005, under the leadership of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich.

Ironically, Ehrlich openly opposes the youth jail.

Del. Jill P. Carter, who attended the rally, said active action will be crucial to reversing the jail proposal. “This rally won’t make a difference but strategic follow up and pressure on elected officials, coming before the Board Of Public Works meeting, for example, can make a difference.”

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young also made an appearance at the event. “We need to be proactive rather than reactive,” he said in opposition to the jail during a brief interview with the AFRO. He did not speak publically at the protest.

Brown said he reached out to other elected officials and received minimal support, even in the 40th district where the jail will be located. “If the governor doesn’t deal with us, then the city will in the 2011 elections,” he said. “The people are outraged.”

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO