by Project WHAT! Youth Advocates Cecillia Nicole Galeano, Lizzie Garcia and Daniel Martinez
There are currently more than 2.7 million children in the United States with a parent who is incarcerated. According to the Department of Children, Youth and their Families, San Francisco had an estimated 17,993 children with a parent incarcerated in 2010.
San Francisco’s jail population is steadily decreasing, and we hope that the number of San Francisco youth struggling to find support during their parents’ and family members’ incarceration will decrease with it. This is why we as youth who have all experienced parental incarceration in San Francisco oppose a new jail in our city.
Jails and prisons do not make cities safer or communities stronger. They are disruptive. They target poor people, people of color, homeless people, transgender and gender queer people, and youth, among others. They tear families apart. They take parents away from their children.
They ignore what is really at the root of the problem. This city needs to address the issues facing the people who live here, but building a new jail will not solve any of our problems. San Francisco needs to prioritize the needs of those who live here, the residents who make up our communities, rather than locking more people up.
We understand that the Hall of Justice needs to be rebuilt because it is unsafe. It is important that the offices and courtrooms are safe. However, it does not make sense to build a new jail with it that would cost the city upwards of $290 million.
We as youth who have all experienced parental incarceration in San Francisco oppose a new jail in our city.
The money that would be used for the jail could be put to much better use. It could go to helping those with mental illness and drug addiction get the proper treatment, rehabilitation and support they need to live fulfilling lives. It could provide homeless people with safe and affordable housing. It could improve our underfunded schools. It could provide better health care and access to health care for us all.
We as children of incarcerated parents need help too in our parents’ absence. We need financial support. There is a considerable financial burden placed on our families when our parents are removed from our lives. We need mental health and wellness resources to cope with the emotional burden.
Having a parent incarcerated is a deeply traumatic experience. We need access to counseling and therapy. We need academic support from our schools, understanding and accommodations from our educators. We need better public housing, not more jail beds. Spend money on keeping our parents out of jail, not locked up.
Why doesn’t the money that will be spent on putting our parents in jail go towards actually helping them? Alternatives to incarceration are less expensive and much more effective than putting people behind bars. One of our fathers wanted to go to a rehabilitation center in San Francisco but couldn’t because they were full. There was no other option for him.
He had no treatment when he was sent to jail. Instead, we had to suffer. His family had to go through emotional trauma that could have been avoided. A new jail is going to force more children to go through the same kind of trauma that we go through. Rehabilitation programs would lower the number of parents getting incarcerated; they would save the city money and would make San Francisco a stronger community – in addition to eliminating any need for new jail beds.
Those in support of building a new jail in San Francisco have argued that this new jail will be more “family friendly.” There is no such thing as a family friendly jail. Regardless of the conditions of visiting, we would rather see our parents getting the help they need and stay in our lives than visit them in a better visiting room within a jail.
Why invest in a new jail rather than the potential of our youth?
If you want a solution that doesn’t punish children, a better visiting room is not good enough. A better visiting room does not make up for all of the things children of incarcerated parents need in the absence of their parent.
We need our parents at home. We need access to those support services that will keep our parents home, rather than costing the city more money by continuing to go in and out of jail with addiction problems, mental health issues and poverty that can all be combated. If the city of San Francisco really cared about children with incarcerated parents having better relationships with their parents, they would be spending money on keeping parents out of jail, not building new places to lock them away.
We know firsthand what services children and families of those in our jail system need. It is absurd to argue that spending money to build a new jail will benefit children of incarcerated parents by providing a better environment for us to interact with our parents and provide more programming inside the jail.
It would benefit us to use that money for re-entry services that will keep our parents out of jail and provide sustainable living for us all. Funding a new jail will make it harder for our younger siblings to successfully grow up in San Francisco because there will be less money for books in our schools, for healthy food in our cafeterias and for safe places to go to after school; it will make it harder for our youth to thrive.
Why invest in a new jail rather than the potential of our youth? Helping a child or teen know their potential today could very well reduce the need for a new jail tomorrow. San Francisco has done a great job at providing alternatives to incarceration and we urge the city to stay committed to that vision, which means not using our money to fund a new jail.
Project WHAT! Youth Advocates Cecillia Nicole Galeano, Lizzie Garcia and Daniel Martinez, can be reached via Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/CWProjectWHAT. Project WHAT! a program of Community Works, is a paid job and leadership development program for teens with incarcerated parents in San Francisco and the Bay Area. For more information, visit www.communityworkswest.org. Project WHAT! is a member organization of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), www.curbprisonspending.org.