Lift Us Up, Don’t Lock Us Down: The Battle to Close Juvenile Hall

Young people of color are powerful forces behind the movement to shut down San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall — and they know what we need in its place.

“My grandma and grandpa are old tradition. They’re rooted,” Jocelyn Mati says. “When they saw me with handcuffs on they started crying. I felt ashamed. I felt like, ‘Damn, they really got me looking like a criminal. They got me looking like someone who’s a bad person.’ ”

Mati was arrested as a teenager for participating in a fight, part of a group of her friends and family members who police swept up and transported to San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall. Handcuffed to a bench for six hours, she and the others didn’t know what was ahead of them. One by one, they were taken into Juvenile Hall and locked up in single rooms with heavy doors. When Mati’s turn came, a guard took one look at her — beaten and exhausted — and said “You probably deserved that black eye.”

“I didn’t even say nothing, because in that moment I was under the law’s supervision,” she says. “It made me intimidated to say anything, so I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t going to speak up for myself.”

For the next three years, despite being in the same facility as those friends and family, none of them were allowed to talk to each other, or even sit next to each other in class. The only time they had to connect was in a holding tank, waiting for court to start.

“Every time before court we’d be like, ‘Oh my god, I missed you,’ ” she says. “We told each other, ‘Look, we’re going to have to come up with some hand signals.’ We knew if we talked to each other we’d get in trouble, and they’d keep us in our rooms.”

These signs were simple, childlike. Drawing a tear down from your eye meant “I miss you.” Flicking a hand under your chin meant “keep your head up.” And putting a gun to your head meant “I’m going crazy in here.”

When Mati’s mom would visit, she got a glimpse of the way life used to be, and for a few minutes, could forget that she was inside. But every visit ended with her mom walking away, and Mati being taken back to her cell.

“I’m seeing the back of her, leaving, and I can’t go with her. I’ve got to stay,” she remembers. “I’m only 15 years old. I’m a kid. The feeling of separation is real. I’d never felt that. The system had to show me that. You’re separating a kid from their mama? How does that do me any better?”

Last month, San Francisco took steps to become the first major city in California to shut down its juvenile hall. The 132-bed facility, which was rebuilt in 2006, sits atop a hill in a quiet neighborhood adjacent to Twin Peaks. It’s there where teenagers in the city are taken while they await court proceedings, or to serve time. Despite its new sleek facade and high ceilings, it hardly resembles a place designed for young people. Remove the kids, posters, and tiny community garden, and it would look like an adult prison, with individual cells entombed behind heavy metal doors.

Today, many of those cells stand empty. An April report from the San Francisco Chronicle showed that violent felony arrests of children have declined 87 percent since 1990, yet the city spends approximately $270,000 per child per year to lock them up. Last year, Juvenile Hall had a budget of $11.9 million, despite being 70 percent empty.

Within days of the Chronicle report’s release, three city supervisors — Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen, and Matt Haney — drafted legislation to shut the facility down by 2021. Nothing like this had ever been proposed before, and Supervisors Gordon Mar, Aaron Peskin, and Sandra Lee Fewer quickly signed on, bringing the total number of supporters to six — a majority.

But Mayor London Breed did not voice her support, prompting fears that without a supermajority of eight supervisors, the legislation would die on her desk. Hours after a rally on City Hall steps, Supervisors Ahsha Safai and Vallie Brown added their names to their colleagues, guaranteeing that the vote will be immune to a veto.

The Chronicle story made national headlines, but it only told a small part of the decades-long battle against the city’s youth criminal justice system and erased the hard work that advocates — largely formerly incarcerated people of color — had spearheaded.

One such organization is the Young Women’s Freedom Center, a peer-based nonprofit in SoMa run almost entirely by young Black and Brown women and gender-nonconforming people who have been “involved with the system” at some point in their lives — be that Juvenile Hall, child protective services, or the local adult jail (nicknamed “850” for its address, 850 Bryant St.). The center was founded with the belief that those who have lived it are the best at helping others navigate their way through incarceration, and that women — who are often the hub of a family — particularly need.

Today, the Center is staffed almost entirely by people who’ve been locked up in San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall — including Mati. Catching people before they even exit the system is a key part of their work to prevent recidivism. According to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown University, incarcerating young people increases the likelihood that they’ll go to jail by 23 percent.

Young outreach leaders hold weekly workshops in Juvenile Hall, along with regular group therapy sessions and drop-in hours for people exiting jail. Its staff are regular commenters at City Hall, and travel the nation speaking about the decriminalization of youth and the successful empowerment of young women of color.

The Freedom Center has been working for years to shut down Juvenile Hall. In their office on Folsom Street, the energy is palpable as organizers gear up for the day’s activities. It’s loud and crowded. Handmade signs hang on the walls, art supplies are scattered on every surface, everyone is scheduled down to the minute.

“Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t that this article happened, and then people were like, ‘Oh, now’s our time to pounce,’ ” Executive Director Jessica Nowlan tells SF Weekly. “We set out two-and-a-half years ago to start a campaign to shut it down. We’ve had weekly meetings in partnerships with communities, incarcerated young people and their parents, and legal advocates, looking at what alternatives look like, where we are spending our money — and, more importantly, how we are caring for our most vulnerable youth.”

In other words, the center helped get the conversation started. “For me as a legislator, this was a dream scenario,” Ronen tells SF Weekly. “I got to work in close partnership with a grassroots organization of extraordinary women who brought not only their own lived experiences but also a sophisticated approach to policy-making and political strategy. It is largely because of their early groundwork that we are here today moving forward with this historic legislation.”

Now that it is about to close Nowlan — who was incarcerated more than a dozen times growing up — says it’s about damn time.

“When this opportunity came it was like, ‘Finally!’ ” she says. “It’s a chance for this city and county to do something really different.”

The conversation around what to do with the soon-to-be-vacant Juvenile Hall and the millions of dollars in city funding it receives each year has already started. Thanks to a number of youth-centered organizations — United Playaz, the Bayview Hunters Point YMCA, and Hope SF, among others — there is ample local evidence that therapy, education, job training and leadership programs can empower youth, reduce crime, and prevent recidivism. 

But before exploring how we get to the solutions, it’s important we have to understand the reasons behind a young person’s choice to commit a crime, and the broken system that keeps them down. In a 50-page paper titled A Radical Model for Decriminalization released in February, the Young Women’s Freedom Center conducted their own research on the ways the criminal justice system affects young women in San Francisco, often before they’re even born. 

Many of the statistics are widely known. In 2013, only six percent of San Francisco’s population was Black, but Black people made up 56 percent of the incarcerated population. Less widely known is how early that inequity starts to appear. In interviews with 100 women and gender-nonconforming people who had gone through foster care, the juvenile justice system, or adult jails, a picture started to appear, one of broken families, poverty, and violence. 

“When we first started looking at the data on what it would look like to close Juvenile Hall, we realized it’s not just Juvenile Hall. It’s this larger system,” says Nowlan. “Of the women and nonbinary folk we interviewed who were Black, 71 percent of mothers had been incarcerated, and 82 percent of fathers. Seventy-six percent of the young people we interviewed had been checked up on by Child Protective Services. We live in a city and county that is criminalizing the existence of Black people and Brown people and poor people.”

In San Francisco, where the wealth gap widens year after year, stressors are increasingly common. Evictions land parents and children in short-term rental hotels or on friends’ sofas. Food insecurity is rampant, and undiagnosed or untreated health issues can devastate families. 

A combination of these scenarios can easily create a young person who engages in petty theft — but in many cases, it’s often for survival.  

“It’s not this wave of youth criminal ‘super-predators,’ ” Nowlan points out, referring to a pernicious myth from the peak of the tough-on-crime era. “It’s young folks in one of the richest cities in the world, that are surrounded by wealth. People have Ubers and this whole lifestyle that young people don’t have access to. They don’t even have their parents at home, or food on the table. In this place, there are no on-ramps. Everything is happening around you, and you’re walking around seeing it, and there’s no way for you to get there.”

San Francisco under-serving its low-income communities of color is one problem, but the nation’s racist and classist criminal justice system successfully keeps them down. Based on the Young Women’s Freedom Center’s own research, the color of your skin plays a role in the time you serve in the institution. The average stay for Black kids under the age of 18 in Juvenile Hall was 179 days, Latinx was 276 days, and Pacific Islanders 178 days. White kids stayed an average of 21 days, and had drastically shorter probation periods. Many kids of color who served their time and were released found themselves locked up again a few weeks or months later, for such minor violations as showing up late to school. And the time spent inside is deeply traumatizing. 

“Even me just sitting in that room — that’s torture enough,” Mati remembers. “Honestly, I feel like me sitting in that room, all I did was count the bricks. Count the squares on the wall. I just sat in there.

“I have high anxiety now, because of the shit that the police did, having their guns out,” she adds. “That shit ain’t sweet or comfortable.” 

Youth organizer Tenaya Jones is 18 years old. Raised in Hunters Point, she’s spent time in Juvenile Hall and seen how the system is set up to fail young people in her community.

“Most people that are in there are just stealing or boosting or something else,” she says. “It’s minor things, and most of the time the problem is deeper than what they’ve done. They don’t have any support from parents, or teachers are not helping them with their work, stuff like that.

“Most of these kids that are going to Juvenile haven’t even left their cities yet,” she adds. “If they see different environments and different cultures they can know that they have options for themselves.”

With the odds so heavily stacked against them, it can be easy to look across the void at formerly incarcerated young people of color and see them as victims of a nationwide criminal justice system failure — and in many ways, they are. But to view them as powerless would be a massive underestimation. Far from being broken and victimized, many are powerful movers and shakers in their families and communities. (Additionally, advocates emphasize that people are more than their youthful indiscretions. In keeping with that, we will decline to specify the nature of the charges of any of the subjects interviewed for this story.)

In San Francisco, those who have lived through Juvenile Hall are by far the most qualified to criticize its failures and decide what’s next. Many grew up along the edges of San Francisco, in neighborhoods with high poverty and incarceration rates, with generations of family members having spent time behind bars. The struggles that these communities face are multi-faceted, not something a wave of a magic wand can fix, and kids are the most vulnerable. How do you get to school on time if your mom works the night shift? Can you do your homework while living out of a car? Where is the next meal coming from? These young people have learned how to march to the beat of the system’s drum, while simultaneously reaching a hand out to those still inside and offering them a way out.

“I’ve heard the police say we’re dysfunctional,” says Jocelyn Mati, who now works at the Young Women’s Freedom Center. “I’m like, ‘Bro. We’re the most functioning people out here. We know how to navigate the streets, we know how to navigate the system, and the problems that you guys put us in.’ ”

K. I. Ifopo, a grandchild of Samoan immigrants and an organizer with the Young Women’s Freedom Project, says they were wooed into the Center through a promise of a $25 gift card in exchange for taking a survey.

“Their pitch was so key,” they say. “I remember that day like it was yesterday.”

Today, they’re the one doing the outreach.

“Before we head out, we ground, we get situated first,” Ifopo says. “We check in with everybody: ‘You good, you good?’ ”

Every day, they’re on the streets in the Bayview, Hunters Point, Downtown, or Visitacion Valley. It’s difficult to break through people’s skepticism and barriers in order to offer the Center’s resources, be that a mother’s group, free childcare, or group support sessions. But it’s not that complicated, really — Ifopo says you just have to meet people where they’re at.

“Folks have attitude. They’re in their struggle, they’re dealing with life,” they say. “For us, it’s always about maintaining that energy we have. If you just need a space to talk to somebody, or you just want to hang out. Here are the hours to come through. We got a free kitchen, childcare. Just come through. It’s all good.”

For Ifopo, the work is personal, but also features a successful ritual of small empowerments they believe create healthier communities, even if generations of families have experienced incarceration.

“Children are introduced to undoing oppression in here,” they say. “It’s not just patting someone on the back, but pushing people to get back on your feet and do this. You have to live. When folks leave through our door, they’re leaving here knowing that they have reclaimed their identity, their self-esteem, their spirit, which society has done harm to.

“This place is magical. I sometimes think of it like Hogwarts,” Ifopo adds. “You walk in and you’re like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s a freedom academy. You get to sharpen up here. This is where you come to really liberate yourself, where you learn to break the cycles in your family.”

Julia Arroyo was in and out of Juvenile Hall between ages 15 and 18, and describes the experience as excruciating and traumatizing.

“I felt shame and isolation behind a cell,” she says. “I felt forgotten, left behind, not worth the investment, the conversation, the talk. I can still remember to this day being watched through a little glass.”

Early on, she realized she wanted to break out of the system — but couldn’t navigate a set of rules that seemed determined to keep her behind bars.

“I couldn’t pinpoint what I needed to do to get out,” she said. “I had one charge until I was 18 year old. I was let out, but I was brought in for status offenses, like not being able to go to school or come home on time. It was very rigid, and there was no looking deeper into what was going on. I didn’t get off of probation until my 18th birthday.”

The rules for juvenile probation vary case by case, but as Arroyo points out, they seldom represent the larger picture a kid is facing. For some, you’re not allowed to spend the night anywhere but one designated address — meaning escaping abuse, or crashing at a friend’s house while your parents work a late shift, can result in more time. Drug tests can be performed randomly with no notice. Many have strict curfews and ankle monitors that make sure they abide by them — meaning if you miss that last bus home, you’re screwed. Any violation, no matter how small, can mean a return to Juvenile Hall.

It was while Arroyo was inside that she encountered the center — which current BART director Lateefah Simon then ran. With Simon and her staff came a glimmer of hope in the form of a small Know Your Rights handbook that helped Arroyo figure out what was going on with her court proceedings — which seemed opaque and incomprehensible. “There’s all this language when you go to court,” Arroyo says. “They would throw around these numbers and jargon, and it was really hard to understand.”

The handbook gave Arroyo a renewed sense of control over her future. When she got out, she joined a young mothers’ support group at the Center, made some friends, and stuck around. Eventually, she was hired as an organizer, and now she’s the program director for youth and reentry.

In the coming weeks, the Board of Supervisors will vote to shut down Juvenile Hall by 2021. But after the legislation is filed, another task begins: deciding what to do with the millions of dollars spent to lock children up, and how to best serve the kids caught up in the system time and again. It’s likely a task force will convene, and advocates hope the city will give several seats to formerly incarcerated young people.

Arroyo believes community-based organizations are the key to preventing people from ending up in the system. For her, it starts at home.

“I want to reinforce for families that they have the ability and tools and structure in place inside their communities that can support them in their parenting.”

That can mean providing stable housing or job security for parents. Or it can be a smaller effort, a few minutes of one person’s day that shows a kid that their life has value.

Mati experienced that firsthand in elementary school.

“My parents always took us to school hella late, because of the lack of support they had,” she says. “Then the vice principal — he’s a white man, not even from the community I’m from. But one morning he came to the hood, pulled up, and took us to school. …That’s real investment.”

Nowlan believes keeping kids out of jail goes hand-in-hand with a larger investment in low-income communities.

“Poverty and survival crimes are huge drivers,” she says. “People have needs that need to be met. When I think about what works, it’s programs that create access and economic opportunities.”

A true executive director, she keeps coming back to the numbers.

“We’re spending nearly $300,000 to incarcerate a young person for one year,” Nowlan says. “Can you imagine if families had access to that money, for everything from food to transportation? The stress that comes from lifelong poverty — what could that do? It would be completely different.”

To make those costs real to people, the Center drafted a piece of school curriculum: “Shut It Down!” Each group gets “Frisco Bucks” totaling $300,000 — the cost to lock up one kid for a year — and asked to come up with a proposal for what they would spend it on instead.

“Ask participants to close their eyes for a few moments and do their best to envision what communities would look like if Juvenile Hall was not around,” the instructions read. “Let them know that this is most important because when the community doesn’t have a plan, the government will.”

San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall may be the first to go, but Nowlan doesn’t think it’ll be the last.

The Center is growing, with offices in Oakland and San Jose that serve young people in different counties. “If we know one thing, San Francisco does like to be first,” she says. “If this is the tech hub of innovation, let it also be the innovation of people and how we support people and freedom. I get a little optimistic, but I really think we can do it. The system will never transform itself. It’s going to take leadership. We have that leadership.”

Related Stories