Thursday, September 19, 2013

Kids in Lock Up

It’s hard to see kids locked up. This week I visited, as a volunteer of the John Howard Association, the Illinois Youth Center at St. Charles, operated by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. The John Howard Association advocates for prison and justice system reform by encouraging the adoption of enlightened public policy while at the same time ensuring government adheres to the policies now on the books for incarcerated people. We toured the many buildings that make up the campus of St. Charles, those still in use that is. A number of buildings are old and ramshackle, awaiting demolition. Demolition costs money, however, and money is in short supply at St. Charles, which is ironic.

St. Charles the community is one of the tonier and more affluent western suburbs. It is believed that the municipality of St. Charles looks longingly at the sprawling 100 year old plus wooded campus of the former “reform school”. It would make a great municipal golf course, a site for big lot suburban houses, lots of things. They have nibbled at the edges over the years. A road to a St. Charles city park now shares the way to the visitor’s entrance where we entered the facility. As soon as that road ends and the state’s road begins (you know when you pass by the tall chain link fence with the shiny concertina wire) you notice the change. Potholes abound. It’s like an island of poverty in an otherwise upscale neighborhood. People from my town go Christmas shopping in St. Charles. When I hear the words St. Charles I don’t think of the cute downtown, the stores that smell like cinnamon, and the big houses with three and four car garages. I think of kids doing time, their lives suspended, their futures bleak.

When you arrive at St. Charles and stand in front of the bulletproof glass window, signing the clipboard and showing your ID, you see behind the officer in charge a rack of leg irons. They are of various sizes, for various size legs, with chains of different lengths. Leg irons, like hand cuffs, are used to control people you don’t trust. There may be a fair amount of trust at St. Charles between the adults and the kids detained, but it’s hard to see for all the security. Security looks to be the number one concern at St. Charles. It goes with the territory I guess. It is a prison after all. It was once a boy’s school, when we thought about boys differently or perhaps when boys were different.

In the early 1900‘s the boys at St. Charles, institutionalized and living away from their parents, a few of them orphans, many of them dependent on others due to their family’s poverty, some of them delinquent and involved with Illinois’ new Juvenile Court Act, created in 1899, lived in the big old brick buildings now abandoned. They tended farm animals, raised crops and gardens, dug a pond (still there called Boy’s Lake), went to school, and learned trades and occupations. Rather than trying to change the environment in which those boys lived, helping the families into which those boys were born, perhaps believing they couldn’t, policy makers put their faith, and Illinois’ most vulnerable kids, into institutions. It was child welfare and juvenile justice rolled into one.

That all changed in the sixties. By and large children who were abused, neglected and dependent were placed in unlocked facilities, increasingly in the family setting of foster care, while delinquent children were placed in locked institutional facilities. I don’t know what year the chain link fence and concertina wire was installed around the smaller perimeter of what is now the campus of St. Charles, one of now six (last year eight) “Illinois Youth Centers” operated by Illinois’ Department of Juvenile Justice. St. Charles and its counterparts in Kewanee, Chicago, Warrenville, Pere Marquette, and Harrisburg are now, for all intents and purposes, prisons.

That is easy to forget. Staff drive us, a group of seven or so volunteers, in a van from the gate and the imposing fence to the nicest building on campus, the administration building, for a briefing. It stands under tall shade trees. There we talk about kids on paper, through reports, as they are affected by policies, in the light of recent changes. As other institutions closed St. Charles’ population grew. Staff were transferred, unions were engaged in the process, adjustments were made. Transportation of young people is much increased among the now fewer institutions in order to get kids to court appearances in their home county. We talked about kids without seeing kids, by talking to adults charged with their care, and then we went to lunch.

We ate in the cafeteria with the youth housed there,and they were anxious to talk to us. No sooner had I put my plastic tray on the cafeteria table than two boys were talking to me, telling me their story, expressing their concerns. The food was better than my last visit there. We had meatballs on noodles in brown gravy, mixed vegetables, and red Jello, all eaten with a spork. I’ve had worse. A twenty year old who had been paroled was still incarcerated because no safe place can be found in which to release him. His family was not approved, and no alternative has been located. Another young man had an issue with the bookkeeping around monies sent him by his family. I took notes, told the truth about our ability to impact the system that governs the facility, and promised to do what we could.

From there we went to the special placement cottage, fewer kids, more staff, where kids with special needs were housed. A group of guys were playing spades. One of them admitted

“I only play cards when I’m in here.”

“How many times you been in?” I asked.

“This is my third,” he said. I looked at his hand, the fan of cards he held close to him. He was holding the Queen of Spades, and was intent to unload it.

There were 283 boys locked up in St. Charles the day we visited. 123 of them, 44%, were parole violators. Those are kids previously released only to return. The population is up sharply from a year ago. St. Charles absorbed most of the boys formerly housed at Joliet’s now closed JJ facility, as well as its staff.

We went to the school library, a large room with not enough books. Books are largely donated. Old encyclopedias abound. There is no librarian, no computers, and no internet access. It never seems to get better.

There are two yellow lines taped on the hall corridor floor which forms a large square. Security guards are stationed in the corners. Teachers occupy only some of the rooms on the perimeter. Not nearly enough teachers. Vacancies are plentiful. As a result instruction time for the kids is down. Boys going one way space themselves out and walk slowly on the outside yellow line and boys going the other way do the same on the inside yellow line. If they stray from the line they are reminded by staff to return. Many walk with their hands clasped behind their back holding a slip of paper they will give their teacher.

There are computers in two rooms, where students work on self paced closed networks of GED or Credit Recovery software. An eighteen year old boy from the Austin neighborhood of Chicago clicked quickly on the screen to show me his progress in various subject areas. He was proud of being close to completing the English and Math requirements. He explained that his profile looked bad in Social Studies only because he hadn’t spent much time in that area and had failed a test.

“I think I’ll be graduated by Halloween,” he said. “Thanksgiving at the latest.”

“What happens after that?” I said.

“Nothing.” There is no post high school academic instruction in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.

“When do you get out?” I asked.

“Next summer maybe, if I can keep my good time.”

We visited reception. We visited other stops that boys make along their journey of acclimating to institutional life. We ended our tour at the confinement center, which is located in the infirmary. I try to pay most attention to close confinement and conditions of close confinement at these facilities. It is close confinement that defines incarceration. It is the escalating loss of freedom that embodies what it means to be locked up and controlled.

There are four forms of solitary lockup. Two cells exist just inside the door of the building where kids can be brought initially to be evaluated or until a decision can be made. A sort of a time out room. A disgruntled boy in handcuffs was placed into one of those rooms right after we entered the building. Boys can be kept there no more than 59 minutes. At that time he must either be returned to the general population or transferred into one of the other three types of confinement.

Suicide watch is next, a perimeter of small cells clustered around a single control booth with big windows. Youth are placed in suicide watch for obvious reasons, for expressing suicidal intent. One young man was in this unit and was in the process of receiving medical attention from a staff nurse. He had learned of a death in his immediate family and injured his hand punching a glass door. The cells of youth on suicide watch are checked every five minutes and psychiatric staff see and engage those kids frequently.

Crisis watch is a similar type of confinement, adjacent to the area used for suicide watch, where boys are locked into individual cells and monitored individually, but for reasons other than the risk of suicide. Both these types of confinement exist primarily for the protection and safety of young people.

The last type of confinement is purely disciplinary and punitive. It is raw lock up designed to control and punish boys who break the rules. On every visit when I ask why young people are locked away in solitary confinement the answer is the same. Fighting and assaults. Fighting refers to violence between boys. Assault primarily means boys attacking staff. Punitive solitary confinement is used every day, the length of time boys are held in confinement is measured in days not hours, and the setting is what you might imagine. This unit is not built for observation. It is designed to isolate. It is a single hall, rooms on both sides, a slot in the drawer a cafeteria tray can be slid through for feeding, a solid door, very little glass. A grid of small holes is drilled in the door to permit talking. The sound of their voices in the cells is muffled. Bedding is taken away during the day. There is a raised concrete platform and a stripped down metal toilet. That’s it.

“Can they get reading material in there?” I ask a staff member. He looks at another staff member, who nods, and says

“Yeah, as long as it’s soft cover.”

If they can get books or magazines, the boys locked up on that day didn’t. Their cells were bare. They simply stood at the doors and looked at us. I talked to one boy.

“How long you been in here?” I talked through the little holes in the door.

“Three days.”

“Why are you in?”

“They say I was fighting but it was horseplay. We was just playing, but somebody got hurt. But I didn’t hurt nobody.”

“You been in here before?”

“Yeah. Two weeks ago.”

“When you think you’ll get out?”

“I’m hoping tonight. I don’t want to do another night in here.”

We don’t yet know how many kids have been disciplined with solitary confinement how often, how long, and for what offenses over time. That report is coming. But I personally hope to see that staff in Illinois are using conflict resolution techniques, finding ways to help kids mediate and resolve conflict, rather than locking kids up. Security is important. Everybody knows that. Punishing kids by locking them away for days by themselves is demeaning. Everybody knows that too.

While involved in my church community as the reader on Sunday this verse was part of the lectionary. It’s Hebrews Chapter 13 verse 3. “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill treated, since you also are in the body.” It’s a verse made for a John Howard volunteer. Years ago I was touring a similar lock up at a time when no kids were confined and I asked the staff member accompanying us on our tour if I could be put in the cell. I entered the cell and sat down on the concrete bunk. I asked him to shut the door and lock it. I stayed there for about ten minutes. My bathroom is bigger than that cell. It was terribly quiet and I felt very alone. I remember distinctly being glad it was daytime.

So if you’ve finished your Christmas shopping in St. Charles, and its getting dark on that nice street by the Fox River, and you’ve gathered with your friends in a bar or restaurant, and are having one of those hot mulled wine drinks; think of the Illinois boys who are locked up for days not far away, down that short hall, deep in the institution, in those small cells. That is the essence of Illinois’ Juvenile Justice system. That’s where our policies take us in the end. We have to do it better.


  1. It was 1964 when I started working for the IL Department of Corrections. The people I worked with were not children, but most of them very young adults. Most were in prison for long periods of time or were in prison multiple times. They were uneducated. So often their story included dropping out of school around age 15.

    The prisoners were locked in small cells for all but about 8 hours a day, and those who broke rules were locked in isolation for days and even weeks. After reforms were instituted, those in isolation were let out, by themselves, for an hour, to walk in an outdoor cage or small interior room.

    It is the same today. The penal system has not changed, Next year it will be 50 years from the first time I interviewed my first inmate to assess the level of security needed to keep this person from hurting others or escaping. Absolutely nothing has changed. We can do better.

  2. Thanks Lois, I agree with you. It feels very old, almost archaic, the system that continues day after day.