By John Sapida

Happy Throwback Thursday! In this new blog series, WITNESS #TBT, we catch up with some of our past partner organizations to find out how their campaigns are going and what they are currently working on. For our first post we reconnected with our friends at The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Based in Oakland, CA, the center is named after Ella Baker, a leader of the civil rights movement in the United States. The mission of the organization is to focus on fighting mass incarceration while simultaneously working to move funding used for prions to other areas including education and health care. One of the Ella Baker Center’s main campaigns, Books Not Bars, centered around closing California’s youth prisons and attempting to shift future policy making towards investing in people (especially youth) instead of in prisons.

Jobs Not Jails Banner
Photo Credit: Ella Baker Center for Human Rights


In 2001, WITNESS partnered with the Ella Baker Center and Columbia University’s Human Rights Institute to produce an advocacy video, also titled Books Not Bars, to accompany the campaign. Books Not Bars documents the youth movement fighting to end the juvenile prison system in California. The video also explores the criminalization of youth, the movement to decrease the amount of money that goes to prisons and advocate to place those funds towards education, and the need to hold politicians and decision-makers accountable for their actions.  Books Not Bars was originally used to advocate against a proposal to build a “super-jail for kids” in California. This facility would have been one of biggest per capita youth jails in the United States. The target audience of Books Not Bars were youth, and policy makers, with a secondary audience of the general public more broadly. In 2004, WITNESS and the Ella Baker Center also co-produced a follow up to Books Not Bars entitled Systems Failurea video that talks about the human rights violations committed by the California Youth Authority (CYA), known today as the California Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

By showing facts about the prison system and testimonies from formerly incarcerated youth, youth activists, and organizers, Books Not Bars challenges its audience to think about possible alternatives to juvenile incarceration and the current prison system.The video also pays special attention to youth of color as they are disproportionately affected by human rights abuses and are more likely to be incarcerated. The video also utilizes testimonies and interviews with academics, youth of color, activists and leaders. The video also discusses problems with the system, the prison industrial complex, and conditions inside these institutions. These testimonies are accompanied by supporting facts and statistics.

Campaign Successes

Since its launch, the Books Not Bars video and campaign have experienced many successes. First and foremost, it helped stop the building of the super-jail. The Ella Baker Center’s campaign has also contributed to the reduction of youth prisons in California from eight prisons down to three. as well as the youth prison population by more than 85 percent to date in the state of California. The Ella Baker Center has also been successful in organizing and mobilizing family members of incarcerated youth across the state of California to spread awareness through training them to work as a powerful team of  campaigners, organizers, spokespeople, and lobbyists for  change in the prison system.

Maria and Darris Vigil photo
Photo Credit: Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Because of the great success brought by the Books Not Bars campaign, the Ella Baker Center has recently started a campaign called “50% for Jobs Not Jail, Books Not Bars, and Healthcare Not Handcuffs” which urges the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to move funds away from the sheriff’s department and towards community-based reentry services. Community members gathered at a vigil to support this campaign in December.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is now also working on a campaign to limit the use of solitary confinement of youth in juvenile facilities in California. The center supports legislation that involves the creation of a uniform definition and usage regulations for solitary confinement. This legislation also requires statewide reporting on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

The center is also working to find ways to help incarcerated youth after they are released. They are currently a co-sponsor for a legislation that would create parole credits to reduce parole terms and reinvest the savings in re-entry services during an incarcerated individual’s first year out of prison. In addition, they are working on a research project that explores the impact of mass incarceration on formerly incarcerated people and their families, including youth.

To catch up with the current campaigns and successes of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, please visit their website at

Throwback Thursday Series

In this new blog series, WITNESS #TBT, we catch up with some of these organizations to find out how their campaigns are going, what they are currently working on, and how they are using video to fight for change. As WITNESS continues to explore new ways to strengthen video advocacy around the world, we wanted to take the opportunity to check in with some of our past partner organizations.In tandem with these posts, we are also re-releasing the advocacy video each group made with WITNESS on our YouTube channel.

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