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Young men silhouetted against a prison fence Young men silhouetted against a prison fence

Letters From a YSI Jail

By Sandra Khalifa and Arely Lozano-Baugh

Young men silhouetted against a prison fence
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letters from a Birmingham City Jail”

This coming Monday marks Martin Luther King Day, the annual ode to a man credited with winning “the dream” for millions of African Americans. This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of King’s “I have a dream” speech, where on the steps of our nation’s capitol, a Black man dared to imagine an America where Black boys and girls live with dignity.

In 1963, “Letters from a Birmingham City Jail” gave a scathing indictment of American equality from a King behind bars. He found himself there for the future of Black and Brown youth – for our generation, our children and our grandchildren. But today we find our youth entrenched in a new system of segregation.

Every year, thousands of youth of color are turned away not from the white-only lunch counter, but from the protections of a quality public education. Black and Brown youth are not being hosed down in the streets of Birmingham, Jacksonville, Selma, or other bastions of segregation. They are being pulled from the classroom for childish misbehavior and funneled through the school to prison pipeline. Black and Brown kids today are not handcuffed for their activism but stopped, frisked, and jailed. For this reason, in 2014, imagine we write you this letter from a Youth Services International’s (YSI) private juvenile prison cell.

More than 40,000 boys and girls in 16 states have gone through a facility or boot camp owned by YSI CEO James Slattery over the past two decades. A symbol of the corrupt private prison industry that has emerged from the ashes of Jim Crow, YSI is America’s 21st century Birmingham Jail.

Over the last several years, the state of Florida has privatized its ENTIRE $183 million youth detention program, meaning private prison corporations have millions of dollars worth of contracts with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. YSI owns over $100 million dollars in contracts, with another several million dollar contract underway to build another facility in the Miami area.

Those held at YSI facilities across the country have frequently faced beatings, neglect, sexual abuse and unsanitary food over the past two decades. Former employees recall going without basic supplies for incarcerated minors. A YSI facility in Palm Beach County, Florida, had the highest rate of reported sexual assaults out of 36 facilities reviewed in the state.

According to a suit filed in October in Federal court, the top administrator at Thompson Academy, a boys’ YSI prison in Pembroke Pines, regularly made sexual advances toward teenage boys held there in 2010 & 2011, and on at least one occasion brought inmates home with him and into his bedroom. A separate case filed in Florida court in November alleges that a female guard at Broward Girl’s Academy, another YSI facility, in 2012 began an “intimate and sexual relationship” with a 14-year-old inmate, causing mental, physical, and emotional damage.

Still, almost as if to perpetuate and sanction YSI’s presence in Florida, in January the state gave YSI a $7.3 million, five-year contract to run the new Broward Youth Treatment Center, a 28-bed program less than a mile away from Thompson. This summer, YSI won contracts to take over two more state facilities, one in the Tampa area and another in Jacksonville.

Although these atrocities take place in many (if not most) of privately run prisons across the country, abusive behavior seems even more pernicious when inflicted on our state’s youth. YSI officials and administrators failed to report misconduct to the state, placing themselves above the law. It’s imperative that the Department of Juvenile Justice take action eradicating this plague of systemic injustice impacting Florida; and most importantly, that we as a community begin standing up for those in society who are most vulnerable — our youth.

Dream Defenders are organized young people fighting against the private prison industry and youth incarceration. Through our work, we have begun to peel back the layers that make up the insidious school-to-prison pipeline; revealing how beneficiaries of for-profit prisons have become deeply intertwined in a system of neglect, abuse, and rationalized inhumanity of which prisoners are the invisible victims.

In his letter, Dr. King questions “the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” Like him, and through his legacy, Dream Defenders not only seek to alleviate the damaging physical and psychological effects of the status quo (private prisons), but are also working to dismantle the incentives for youth incarceration (profit).

Multiple factors and institutions play an integral role in this industry’s exponential growth. They form a neat machine geared for the accumulation of wealth: from investment, to politician-buying, to policy-making.When profit becomes the sole focus, humanity is often neglected and sometimes forgotten.

Dream Defenders have been working to publicize YSI misconduct against youth across the state and to prevent the Department of Juvenile Justice from continuing to allow use of public funds for the abuse and neglect of minors. At the most recent meeting of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil rights, members of the Dream Defenders, along with key legislators, and community leaders from throughout Florida called for the issue of YSI and it’s multi-million dollar relationship with the Department of Juvenile Justice to be addressed. Though YSI was discussed, there was no time to run through the corporation’s full record. The next step is calling a full hearing to outline how YSI is unfit to meet basic standards of accountability and care.

Governor Rick Scott must step out of the way and allow Secretary of the DJJ, Wansley Walters, to crack down on these disturbing atrocities taking place under her watch. Dream Defenders will not rest until private detention corporations that place profit over people are driven out of our state.

As King’s letter read, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

This Monday, remember our letter from a YSI jail. Think of the thousands of children, overwhelmingly children of color, who are held, abused, and degraded in privately run detention centers around the country. For them, 50 years after King’s dream, we fight to make dreams a reality.

Follow Dream Defenders on Twitter @Dreamdefenders.

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Sandra Khalifa and Arely Lozano-Baugh

communications director of the Dream Defenders

Catch up with me @snkhalifa.




racial justice


January 17, 2014

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