Image Credits: Justin Hamilton for the ACLU 

Michael Saavedra, a 20-21 Justice Catalyst Fellow at Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), along with Nalya Rodriguez, sat down with the ACLU in mid-March for an interview about their work with YJC to free people from jails and prisons in Los Angeles.  

Youth Justice Coalition is a grassroots organization comprised of formerly incarcerated activists or others who have been impacted by the carceral system working to challenge the criminal legal system. As a Justice Catalyst Fellow and Legal Coordinator at YJC, Saavedra works to remove the barriers that block many formerly incarcerated individuals from becoming lawyers and, ultimately, to end mass incarceration and advocate for people of color in his community. 

Saavedra’s interview is available here and reproduced below: 

ACLU: How did you get involved with YJC? 

MICHAEL: I spent close to 20 years in prison, and 15 of that was in solitary confinement. While I was incarcerated, I worked with a group of outside organizers on a hunger strike. It was one of the largest prisoner hunger strikes in this nation’s history. One of the things we asked for was access to higher education in solitary confinement. That’s how I was able to take some courses and later, enroll in community college.   

I learned a lot about the legal system during my time locked up, including when I successfully sued the Department of Corrections several times over my solitary confinement, which violated my constitutional due process rights. Once I was out, I applied for a job as a paralegal and was hired on the spot. They discovered I was formerly incarcerated about six months later, and fired me. At that same time a position opened up at YJC and my roommate Anthony, who was also incarcerated, told me about it. I applied and got the job.  

ACLU: Was there a turning point in your life that led you to organizing and activism? 

MICHAEL: If you’ve been incarcerated for a long time, there are multiple turning points, starting with your public defender, who tries to get you to take a plea bargain even though you’re innocent. They don’t warn you that it will stay on your record for the rest of your life and harm you when it comes to housing and employment. That and many other experiences made me want to do the work that I do now, and also to become a lawyer and help people like myself to not have to rely on a classist and racist system.  

ACLU: Can you describe a typical workday at YJC? 

MICHAEL: As far as YJC, my day typically consists of taking calls as the lead on jail litigation. Since the recent announcement of the resentencing policy from [District Attorney] George Gascón, I’ve received a flood of calls and letters from folks inside and from family members out here asking for assistance with petitions for resentencing. I also work on letters from prisoners or calls regarding litigation. And prior to COVID, every other Saturday we would do free legal clinics to help people with immigration questions, expungement, tenants’ rights, debt relief, and things like that. Other than that, a lot of Zoom meetings with the many organizations we work with.  

ACLU: How has the pandemic shaped YJC’s work over the past year?  

MICHAEL: COVID has drastically changed things. It’s caused us to redirect our resources and take on all these calls from people in prison and their family members, who are sick or scared because of conditions inside. People have not been able to come into our legal clinics and not everybody can access support online. The community we serve in South Central is primarily Spanish-speaking and Black folks reentering society after being incarcerated and they don’t know where to go. We had to shut down our office at the Justice Center, which has affected the ability to work for some of us who don’t have computers or other office equipment at home. COVID has also changed the direction of our work. We usually work on policy impacting youth. Now we’ve been focusing more on incarceration, including women’s jails and prisons.  

ACLU: What do you think people who aren’t impacted by incarceration misunderstand about the system? 

MICHAEL: One thing people fail to realize is that those same people called mafiosos or gang members, the worst of the worst, they’re the ones that actually want to see peace. They have the respect of the community, and could tell the youngsters to kick back and they will respect that. And that’s why we’ve been having this beautiful time of peace right now in South Central LA, which has been unheard of. YJC has led all of those peace treaty meetings taking place. We’re connected to the actual hood where all this stuff takes place, where people are overpoliced. 

A lot of peacebuilding efforts have been unsuccessful because they are led by people who are not from the community and who have ties to the Los Angeles Police Department. Some of the biggest social justice organizations are run by people with white privilege, or white saviors. I don’t want to offend anybody, but it’s true. And they’re either working with the probation department, or they have contacts. They also have this thing called mandatory reporters. So whenever they go into a situation, they take down names and give this information to the LAPD, which puts it in its gang database. Now these people are labeled as gang members and that can be used against them if they ever get arrested, or in their housing.  

I think we need to come together and educate folks and put formerly incarcerated people, people who are directly impacted, people of color in leadership positions, not just lawyers. And they need to be paid the same. We’re called the experts and we’re tokenized all the time to speak on the issue, but they don’t want to pay us the same. 

ACLU: 2020 was a difficult year, especially for many of the people you work with. But did anything good come out of it? 

MICHAEL: For me, 2020 brought bright, beautiful things. I got accepted to UCLA and got a fellowship with Harvard Law School [Justice Catalyst].  

ACLU: The Black Lives Matter movement has brought abolition to the forefront of the policing conversation. How does YJC approach abolition?  

MICHAEL: Abolitionists say no more jails, no more cops. It’s an ideology about a utopia without prisons or police. But you have to have something to replace all of that. And that’s where we come in as members of the communities that are overpoliced. At YJC, we offer a real solution to no cops — we call it transformative justice and peacebuilding. So when you talk about taking cops off campus, we actually have a solution. We have a school without cops or even security. Instead, we have what we call peacebuilders who are trained on de-escalation and self-defense without any guns or weapons. We try to use our voices rather than violence.