The scene could have been scripted by Hollywood, except this time the prison guards and cops were certainly not the heroes. In the late night hours of Labor Day, Sept. 1, during a guard shift change, 32 young men, Black, Brown and white, broke through the walls of their dorms and slipped out underneath the fence of the Woodland Youth Development Center, a state-run youth prison in Nashville, Tenn. Since then, all but six of the youth have been apprehended.
Two days later on Sept. 3, 24 more youth broke out of their dorms. This time the youth were not able to escape the facility and were immediately apprehended with nonlethal force and dozens of outside police.
The Woodland Youth Development Center, which holds around 80 young people in captivity, is a particularly poor place for youth to be for many reasons, given a recent wrongful death lawsuit, a huge sex abuse crisis and a previous breakout attempt early in the year. Yet the crisis leading to the youth rebellion at Woodland is not a crisis of bad apples; it is the crisis of the entire capitalist mass incarceration system.
Around 500,000 young people are brought to youth detention centers each year, with around 61,000 young people living full time in youth prisons. Youth of color are way more likely to fill these prisons, as well as more likely to be tried as adults and face harsher sentences.
One of the main factors fueling young incarceration is whether young people can find employment. The official youth unemployment rate was 14.3 percent in July 2014, which includes a rate of 12.2 percent for whites, 24.8 percent for Black youth and 16.5 percent for Latino/a youth. Yet these numbers hide the fact that the percentage of young people engaged in the workforce is almost 20 percent lower than it was in 1989. (bls.gov, Aug. 13)
Less than 40 percent of Black youth are engaged in the workforce, meaning they are employed full or part time or looking for work, while more than 55 percent of white youth are engaged in the workforce. The remainder of the youth population (16-24 years old) are not even looking for work.
Mass incarceration begins early
The growth of mass incarceration of the working class, especially Black and Latino/a workers, starts early. Whether it is zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools or youth curfews in the streets, young people are faced with the constant threat of arrest and imprisonment. Forty-nine percent of Black men, 44 percent of Latino men and 38 percent of white men are arrested by the time they are 23, filling the mass internment camps that hold more than 2.2 million working-class people in the U.S. (Associated Press, Jan. 20)
Beyond employment and school discipline, the conditions young people face include an increasingly unequal and inadequate educational system, the mass incarceration of their parents and family members, unemployment and low wages for their family members, racist police targeting of youth of color and, generally, the lack of a real future in the capitalist system. This is the same crisis that erupted in rebellion in Ferguson, Mo., led by young people after the police killing of Michael Brown.
The Woodland Center is not the only place where young people face the brunt of the capitalist state. Around 50,000 migrant youth face internment in camps mostly in the Southwest because they have come to the U.S. looking for a future with employment, education and safety. They have been organizing and fighting back in their own way as well.
While many organizations are doing the righteous work to reduce the number of young people imprisoned, the crisis is systemic and requires a systematic change. Capitalism, the system that leads to the poverty of hundreds of millions of workers to make a handful of billionaires, requires the prison system to enslave millions of people who cannot be employed.
Prison uprisings such as the Attica Rebellion in 1971 have always been important signs of the fightback of the working class and especially the oppressed. Revolutionary socialists look to these uprisings as promising examples of the will of the working class and oppressed people to rise up, against all odds, and flex their power.
Young people are often the most conscious of the crisis facing them and their generation. To this we say, “It is right to rebel against the capitalist system.” Let’s tear down the walls of the racist prison system!