The Beginning of Families for Books Not Bars—#Roots2Liberation

This post is part of our #Roots2Liberation blog series highlighting our history and our vision for the future, leading up to our celebration of our 20th anniversary on Thursday, September 8th in downtown Oakland. 

The Ella Baker Center’s Books Not Bars campaign to close all state youth prisons began in 2004. Laura Brady was one of the founders of Families for Books Not Bars, the first statewide network of families with incarcerated children. Books Not Bars ultimately succeeded in closing 5 of California’s 8 youth prisons.

Laura and others worked tirelessly for years to help shut down several CYA prisons. She has been a part of the Ella Baker Center family for over a decade and continues to fight against injustices against people of color and low-income communities today.

Read our interview with Laura about her participation in Books Not Bars, and her long-standing support of the Ella Baker Center.

How did you get involved with the Ella Baker Center?

As soon as the kid died in CYA [California Youth Authority] I began to get involved with the Books Not Bars, me and a few others. I actually helped start Families for Books Not Bars with Lordes Duarte and Barbara Jackson. Lordes and I met when we were both visiting our sons in Chad, I think it was Chad then. She heard me complaining about how my son was being treated and asked, would I be interested in sharing my story? She was already a part of the Books Not Bars campaign and she asked if I would want to be a part of the documentary they were making, System’s Failure.

I told her I would; my son was the one in the video with all the scars on his face.

How did you start Families for Books Not Bars?

We started recruiting other families whose children were abused by the system, did outreach and helped them get services, I’m a paralegal so I had some resources and the Ella Baker Center had a bunch. We recruited people to come to our functions, to go to the capitol, and protest.

I led many of the phone interviews and I came to strategy meetings up in Oakland. I’d like to say we strategized our attack on the system. I’d say that I was 150% involved in the Families for Books Not Bars; I’ve been to all of the protests, meetings, and the capitol so many times.

What drew you to the Ella Baker Center?

We were family—no, we are family. I don’t think one staff member had a family member in our situation, no family members in prison, but they were still 200% invested. They helped us emotionally, as well as with whatever they could do to help us help our children with new laws, getting attention from the media, and meetings with directors of the CYA. We were meeting with really big people, like the people in charge and we were in Sacramento so much that it wasn’t funny. The movement back then was a force to be reckoned with; we had grandparents, parents, and children working with us.

They saved my life, they saved my son’s life. How can you repay that back? They kept me sane. As a parent you can’t imagine the things we had to go through, but the Ella Baker Center was there.

What kept you all going during this difficult fight?

When we were fighting we lost five young men over two years under very suspicious circumstances. I knew that my kid was being abused and the more that happened to other people’s children was more and more ammunition. We also had Senator Gloria Romero backing us and that really helped us because despite her and her daughter being a victim of a violent crime she agreed that no one should be treated how the CYA was treating children.

You know, the year my son got released the law got changed and he would have never gone to jail for the crime he was charged with? He was 15 when he went in and didn’t get out until he was 21; that was because of time adds after time adds after time adds. If you talked back you got a time add; you could get a time add for anything a guard wanted. When my son went in he was sentenced to 2 years, but he ended up doing 6.

[Time adds were a policy that allowed guards to extend parole consideration hearing dates without due process in the youth prisons. Through the Books Not Bars campaign, the Ella Baker Center eliminated the practice in 2012.]

The jail was allowed to hold you for up to 6 years or until you turned 21 without consulting a judge if they thought that you needed more time to “rehabilitate.” A prison guard literally told my son he was his salary for 6 years. And then on the day he was released, his 21st birthday, they re-arrested him on a, excuse my language, bullshit charge and sent him to county jail near Chad. They said that he’d exposed himself to a female guard before leaving and slapped me with $50,000 bail. Zach was there when he got out and helped me so much. He helped me get a hotel room and waited with me until I was able to scrape up $2,500 to bail him out.

How did Books Not Bars impact your son?

They went after my son even harder in CYA because of me, because they knew what I was doing so they tried to get back at me with my son. But my son was also doing what he needed to do to get the information we needed out. He’d swipe memos and smuggle them out to me during visiting. At one point we found out that the water that the youth were drinking was brown. So they’d posted memos telling the staff not to drink it, but still served it to the youth. He [her son] wasn’t afraid to talk because he figured he’s going to be abused anyway so he might as well fight back. He spent over 5 years of his 6 year sentence in solitary confinement. He’s now 31 and I am still dealing with that, he’s been back to prison twice.

What impact do you feel like Books Not Bars had?

I think everyone knows who Books Not Bars and the Ella Baker Center are; in my opinion we made history. Now you guys are just on the next phase of history making.

Help us celebrate our wins and look ahead to our liberated futures—buy your ticket for our anniversary event today!