On Thursday, March 27, representatives from the Decarcerate Coalition’s Connecticut chapter (Decarcerate), along with Connecticut residents and University students, met to collaborate on efforts opposing the opening of a short-term lockup facility for juvenile girls convicted of non-violent offenses in Middletown.
Decarcerate describes itself as a community dedicated to changing arrest and sentencing laws to reduce the number of people incarcerated, diminishing the budget of the criminal justice system, reinvesting the money in addressing human need, and improving prison conditions to prioritize education and vocational programs for those who remain incarcerated.
Ashe Kilbourne ’14, a member of Decarcerate, is opposed to the facility because of the violence it would perpetrate on communities.
“The prison system is designed to take low-income, mostly black and Latino people off the streets,” Kilbourne said. “It’s most effective when it’s able to target them when they’re young, which is what this [facility] aims to do.”
Kilbourne is additionally compelled to oppose the facility, located just two and a half miles from the University’s campus, because of its impact on Middletown.
“It’s happening in our town,” she said. “Plenty of people could be from Middletown, a community we share and take space from.”
The facility is not a long-term lockup, but rather a 30-day program for juveniles with histories of absconding from previous programs.
At any given time, it will house approximately 12 girls. According to The Connecticut Mirror, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families Joette Katz defends the facility’s innovative treatment model and maintains that it is designed to be therapeutic.
“These girls are going to get the behavioral health treatment they need…. It is not a prison,” Katz is quoted as saying in The Connecticut Mirror. “This is not at all what this model is about. The intent for this is to be a brief, short stint, intensive treatment and then return them to wherever they need to go to ensure their safety.”
However, Chris Garaffa, a spokesperson for the initiative against the lockup, is dubious about the therapeutic potential of such a lockup.
“It’s not enough and too late,” Garaffa said at Thursday’s meeting.
Kilbourne agreed that the model is inappropriate.
“These people aren’t here for violent crimes and shouldn’t be in the prison system at all,” she said. “Also, there is little evidence that this lockup, which is supposed to be temporary, is going to change anything in the long run. The reason people run away is that their treatment is so subpar, and there are issues of abuse in the system.”
Barbara Fair, a longtime activist against the drug war, mass incarceration, and police brutality in New Haven, Conn., and the head of the social justice organization My Brother’s Keeper, agreed with Garaffa and Kilbourne that the opening of institutions such as the one planned in Middletown is little more than a disguised battle on low-income communities of color. She has focused her efforts on a total overhaul of the criminal justice system.
“Reform is not the way to go,” Fair said. “It’s really about transforming the entire system. The war on drugs is another reform of slavery. We changed it from having people on plantations to now having people in prisons all across this country…. It’s a continuing process of incarcerating people, destroying their lives.”
Fair is also deeply troubled by the economic gains that the criminal justice system stands to make by establishing prisons.
“Prisons are now part of the stock market,” Fair said. “People would rather open up a prison than open up a store, because they know that if they open up a prison, they’ll always have bodies to fill them…. There will always be laws that criminalize an entire community.”
Decarcerate’s members’ distrust of and distaste for the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Department of Corrections (DC) runs deep. The representatives noted that the DCF has been under supervision from the state of Connecticut for over 20 years, since the Long Lane School For Girls, another facility for convicted juveniles, was shut down due to issues concerning the security of its residents.
“It became a place to warehouse people,” Garaffa said.
Although it has officially been decided that the facility will open in the next few months, and it has already been fully constructed, Decarcerate Connecticut is hopeful that activism—the right sort of activism—will force reconsideration of the project.
“It would be great to mobilize youth around this project because these issues are the ones that affect us,” said Ina Staklow, another Decarcerate Connecticut member, in speaking to the 20-odd members of the forum. “Some possible actions are student walkouts, campaigns, protests on campus, and protests at the facility itself.”
Kilbourne, too, is optimistic that focused action will be effective in the fight to shut down the facility before it opens.
“I am hopeful,” she said. “There’s lots of potential interest at the University.”
That potential interest might begin to take shape this weekend: Decarcerate will hold a press conference on Saturday, April 5 to raise awareness around the issue, and Kilbourne believes that this publicity, the first so far for the organization’s protest against the Middletown lockup, will energize the movement.
Gregory Williams, another Decarcerate member, pointed out that the state of Connecticut has one of the widest income disparities in the United States; that gap, according to Williams, is part of the criminal justice problem—and the solution.
“It’s time for the small suburbs to give back to cities,” Williams said. “The money is there. Let’s take it and put it in the right place.”