Pearl River FFLIC’s biggest current campaign is their effort to try to stop the expansion and rebuilding of the Swanson Center for Youth in the north Louisiana city of Monroe. FFLIC is easy to say, but stands for a string of words: Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, a 20-year-old organization active around the state and in a network of similar groups all around the country that are focusing of restorative justice and reform of the prison system, especially for youth. We caught up with Cheyenne Blackburn, FFLIC’s campaign director, born and bread on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, on a recent Wade’s World.
Something called the Swanson Center for Youth almost sounds like a rec center where kids might go to play ball with a real net and learn to make lanyards. This is the threat that boys of my generation lived with whenever we misbehaved: being sent to reform school. In fact, the Swanson Center now was the Louisiana Training Institute branch in Monroe then, and that’s where north Louisiana delinquents were sent. Which is to say, white teens, since it wasn’t integrated until 1969, but now in the mass incarceration movement that dates its roots to the blowback against Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and went on steroids from Clinton on.
Professor Elizabeth Hinton in her book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, brilliantly draws a straight line from the opposition to pushing for equity ending up in the jailhouse. Central in this phenomenon was branding Black youth as ubiquitous and unchecked criminals. We all know too many examples because the evidence is everywhere, including in FFLIC’s fight against the expansion of Swanson, even though the odds of winning are getting smaller. An early success in blocking state bond money to finance the expansion was overturned when the bond commission later greenlighted the money. Ground has been broken on the expansion, and perhaps it is inevitable now, although it needs to be opposed, as the fight may turn from bricks and sticks to what happens behind the walls, and that’s where restorative justice becomes critical.
FFLIC is also fighting the ways that juveniles are tried as adults by politically motivated district attorneys trying to harvest cheap votes and headlines, but the longer arc of their mission is abolition. They are part of the LA HOOP Coalition. HOOP stands for Harvesting Opportunities Outside Prison. They also argue that they aren’t lonely voices in the wilderness. A recent poll of adults found that 73% support a youth justice system focused on prevention and rehabilitation rather than punishment. 80% wanted money spent on anything but incarceration with 76% agreeing that more social workers and mental health counselors are key and 74% support a system where incarceration is not the automatic response for youth in the justice system.
Cheyenne and FFLIC are in a hard fight, but that doesn’t mean the struggle they are leading should be a lonely one. The experiences of these families and their children should be political and policy concerns for all of us in Louisiana and wherever we call home.