This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.
Long before the “school-to-prison pipeline” was a well-worn phrase and even law-and-order Republicans had traded “tough on crime” for “smart on crime,” a tireless group of parents trekked, over and over, to the California state Capitol.
Their goal was as personal as it was quixotic: to shut down the California Youth Authority. At its height decades ago, the network of youth prisons held more than 10,000 young people, in conditions so inhumane that over one 18-month stretch in 2004, 56 teens attempted suicide.
Even when the parents’ pleas were met with indifference inside the halls of the Legislature, they rallied on—hoisting poster boardswith childhood photos of their sons and daughters.
“Books not bars!” they chanted, even when no one seemed to be listening.
The campaign slogan stuck. What the parents lacked in political power they made up in numbers. As many as 1,400 members would eventually join what came to be known as the Books Not Bars campaign, relentless advocates for children and teens locked up for crimes as serious as homicide and as commonplace as drug use and probation violations. Books Not Bars meetings became a lifeline for family members, who supported each other during the most difficult years of their lives.
“When you’re out there fighting for your child, it can feel like you’re on the battlefield by yourself,” said Katrina Allen of Fresno, one of Books Not Bars’ earliest and most outspoken members. “We were a family—a family of parents who had children in dire straits.”
There was little indication, back in those days, of the success these parents would come to achieve. But there were signs of their influence.
“Once you have parents in your face, up close and personal, and we’re bringing to you the things that our children are going through, you can no longer turn a blind eye,” Allen said. “Now, this had to be addressed.”
Once-unimaginable goal comes true
Amid the protests, for decades, prosecutors and judges continued to send tens of thousands of young people, some as young as 12, to the California Youth Authority’s 11 hulking warehouses. Serving indeterminate sentences, with “time-adds” for even minor infractions like getting in fights, some young people were held in prison cells for 23 hours a day or assaulted by guards. Punishments included being forced to attend high school classes in telephone booth-sized metal cages arranged in a semicircle. Larger cages the shape and size of shipping containers were used for individual exercise sessions.
In 2003, the San Quentin-based Prison Law Office filed the Farrell v. Harper civil suit in Alameda County Superior Court, alleging excessive use of force and sexual abuse by Youth Authority staff and “inhumane, filthy, stultifying housing conditions.” A year later, a judge signed off on a settlement requiring remedial plans to address deficiencies in safety, health, mental health care, education, sex offender treatment and disability services. The judge placed the entire youth prison system under the supervision of a special master and commissioned a series of reports that documented lack of education, medical neglect, and “stunning” levels of violence.
Then, in May of 2020, a newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom—seeking to trim state costs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic—slipped a stunning move into his first-ever state budget. The fresh-faced Democrat who had vowed early on to “end the juvenile justice system as we know it” quietly announced plans toshut down the state’s youth prisons entirely and return all occupants to facilities in their home counties. Newsom described the closure of the renamed Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) as the beginning of a new era in youth corrections.
For the parents who had long fought for this outcome, it represented the end of a nightmare.
“This is what we wanted,” said Katrina Allen. “It’s why we kept fighting. We were not going to be silenced.”