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Fighting the Worst Pipeline of All: From School to Prison

On December 7, the Native prisoner support group, Huy, submitted a letter to the Seattle City Council opposing a new King County juvenile detention facility slated to open in 2018, arguing it is part of the school-to-prison pipeline confronting Native students.
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Another pipeline crossing Indian country threatens our most precious resource. This pipeline has been under construction for nearly a century and has already done irreparable damage to Native people and communities. It doesn’t carry oil or natural gas. It carries Native children, vacuuming them out of schools and transporting them to one of our nation’s fastest-growing industries: the adult prison system.

On December 7, the Native prisoner support group, Huy, submitted a letter to the Seattle City Council opposing a new King County juvenile detention facility slated to open in 2018, arguing it is part of the school-to-prison pipeline confronting Native students.

“...juvenile detention facilities, like the proposed King County facility, house a disproportionately high number of Native youth,” Gabriel Galanda, chairman of the Huy Board of Advisors wrote in the letter. “Nationally, Native American youth are 30 percent more likely than Caucasian youth to be referred to juvenile court than have charges dropped, which results in their early entry into the system—perhaps without return.”

Native prisoner

An unknown Native American man wearing prison stripes sits for an inmate identification photograph at McNeil Island Penitentiary in 1901.


Huy, pronounced “hoyt” in the Coast Salish language, is a non-profit providing “economic, educational, rehabilitative and religious support for Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian prisoners,” primarily in Washington State. It joins other organizations opposing the new jail such as EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex), YUIR (Youth Undoing Institutional Racism), Black Out WA, Creative Justice, Village of Hope, the larger #NoNewYouthJail Coalition, as well as hip-hop artist Macklemore.

The facility’s friendly sounding name, Children and Family Justice Center, belies its true purpose: a children’s jail. The new 112-bed facility will replace the old, dilapidated Youth Services Center in Seattle’s Central District. The new facility is being paid for by King County and was approved by voters in 2012, but since it’s being built within city limits, Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections needed to grant a master-use permit. Activists wanted Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to deny the permit and even protested outside Murray’s home on Tuesday, December 20. Murray’s office responded, saying he “cannot intervene in any permitting decision.” The permit was granted two days later.

school-to-prison pipeline infographic

The front side of an infographic created by the National Congress of American Indians illustrates the school-to-prison pipeline.

What Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the bureaucratic machine we’ve built that identifies and pulls at-risk youth into the revolving door of the Prison Industrial Complex.

Once, a kid could get in a fight at school and perhaps be suspended for a few days. Now, the police are often called. This zero-tolerance policy toward violence acts like a funnel for kids with emotional problems, drawing them into the juvenile justice system after they act out in some way. Poverty, lack of resilient family supports, and even learning disabilities can lead to anger and acting out.

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Add to this the often racist harassment of law enforcement, the higher concentration of police in poor neighborhoods and schools, and a clogged judicial system. The result is a bureaucratic vacuum cleaner that yanks at-risk kids out of their schools and into a machine they are often stuck in for the rest of their lives.

Additionally, Native children, whose cultures have been smashed and who’ve lost their cultural identities, often live with trauma they’ve inherited from their parents or grandparents. Instead of working to heal these children when they act out, we lock them up and destroy their self-esteem. We deal with them through the sterile court system, instead of through the tribe, clan or community. We train them to hate themselves, instead of showing them how to love.

School-to-prison pipeline inforgraphic

The back of the NCAI infographic includes some examples of how different tribes are addressing the school-to-prison pipeline problem.

The Deck Is Stacked Against Native Kids

“In our experience,” Huy Board of Advisors Chairman Galanda wrote in his letter to the council, “local Native youth are infrequently offered opportunities for diversion. These points track with findings of the Washington Supreme Court’s Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System, which reveals persistent disparate treatment of Native youth at each stage of Washington’s juvenile system.”

Gabriel Galanda

Gabriel Galanda, Native lawyer and chairman of the Native inmate support group Huy (pronounced “Hoyt”).

This disparity is evident on a national level as well. Terry L. Cross of the Seneca Nation writes in his article, “Native Americans and Juvenile Justice: A Hidden Tragedy,” (November/December 2008 issue of Poverty & Race Journal):

“American Indian youth are grossly over-represented in state and federal juvenile justice systems and secure confinement. Incarcerated Indian youth are much more likely to be subjected to the harshest treatment in the most restrictive environments and less likely to have received the help they need from other systems. American Indian/Alaska Native youth are 50 percent more likely than whites to receive the most punitive measures. Pepper spray, restraint and isolation appear to be grossly and disproportionately applied to Indian youth, who have no recourse, no alternatives and few advocates.”

Standing Up for At-Risk Native Youth

Although the new children’s jail in Seattle is going ahead as planned, Native kids caught up in the juvenile justice system in the Pacific Northwest now know they have an advocate. Huy, whose board members include National Congress of American Indians president Brian Cladoosby, means “see you again/we never say goodbye.”

And for kids in an impersonal world like the juvenile justice system, hearing a greeting like that from Native leaders could just make the difference between being a criminal and leading a healed, empowered life.