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Inside juvenile prison
County fights ACLU charges of abuse

Thursday, December 15, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas and Jeff Coen

Words through a cell wall at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center interrupted the stillness of an otherwise quiet night.

A staff member told the two boys who were talking to shut up. One did; the other did not.

Marcellus, 17, recalled hearing his neighbor's cell door open and glimpsing a staff member's uniform shirt as he walked in. Then, according to Marcellus, the staff member "choked him, slapped him, punched him ... started beating him up." Later, he heard the boy crying.

Stories like that crop up in conversations with teenagers who have been held recently at the center, a controversial institution that is back in court.

"They'd be hurting the kids when they break up the fights--it's like they are joining it," said Tiara, 17. "The staff are like their own gang."

In a court filing Wednesday, Cook County officials denied allegations of widespread violence and mismanagement at the Juvenile Detention Center, setting the stage for a hearing to decide whether an outside monitor should be brought in with far-reaching powers to manage reforms.

In response to a petition by the American Civil Liberties Union, the county insisted that in recent years it has improved the detention center and does not tolerate violence by children or staff members.

U.S. District Judge John Nordberg has said he may decide to hold public hearings as soon as January, in which County Board President John Stroger, county commissioners and other authorities could be called to testify under oath.

In 2002, the county entered into a memorandum of agreement with the ACLU that settled a federal lawsuit over conditions at the center, promising reforms.

But in the new petition filed last month, the ACLU alleged the center "continues to subject the children to high levels of violence, threats and intimidation, including abuse by other children and even by staff." That resulted in "broken bones, broken teeth, lacerations that require sutures, bruising, bleeding, and chest pain.

"Most of the children interviewed report having witnessed staff punch, kick, or slap residents," according to the petition.

In interviews with the Tribune, eight teenagers recently discharged from the facility suggested that some of the most disturbing episodes continue, leaving kids feeling like they are on their own.

In some ways their stories sound eerily similar to the hard-bitten tales that emerge from adult prisons. In other ways, what goes on at the facility seems to be a carryover from life on the streets--with gangs, posturing, fights, flirting and the pervasive belief that adults cannot be trusted.

Yet at times, the teenagers let slip hints that they are still, somehow, on the tail end of childhood--competing for candy, passing love notes, fighting acne.

These teenagers have been in and out of the troubled facility over the last year and a half, waiting for court action on a variety of charges. The details of their stories cannot be independently verified--one of the complaints about the center is that fights and other incidents are not well documented.

Supt. Jerry Robinson said nothing in the facility's log matches the specific allegations raised by the youths, adding that he could neither confirm nor deny that they had taken place. Robinson contends allegations of staff abuse made by residents are down in recent months.

But the stories shared by the teens closely match the findings of independent monitors who have spent time at the facility. The youths' stories are also supported by the accounts of workers who spoke on the condition that their names not be used.

Boxing matches

One day in the summer of 2004, cartoons were playing on television at the detention center when a staff member told girls gathered in front of the set to push their chairs aside.

Two teens at the center were arguing again, and the woman watching them had had enough. Her solution: Have the girls box it out.

"She said, `I'm tired of this. All y'all move,'" said Tiara, who witnessed the fight. "We all moved, and they fought. It was crazy to me."

After three or four minutes, when one had a bloody nose, the staff member declared the fight over. And the girls on unit 3E returned to cartoons, simply trying to get through another day in the chaotic institution where an average of 400 county teens wait for trial.

Dozens of girls from three units spilled out into the recreation yard in September 2004, when two girls who had a crush on a third started arguing.

Soon, a handful of girls turned on one--punching and kicking her until she fell to the ground, curled into a ball, according to Debbie, 16, who said she saw the fight while she was in detention for battery.

"Everybody was getting their licks in," Debbie said. But it wasn't the fight that troubled her most as she recalled it a year later. It was staff members who stood by, she said, watching.

"Some of them just laughed. They let them fight for a while, for a few minutes then ran over there," she recalled. "They were laughing like their type of laugh, like these girls are crazy. They enjoyed it for a while."

After Debbie witnessed the fight in the recreation yard, she grew frightened. She started breaking rules on purpose like tearing off her identification bracelet so the staff would confine her to her cell.

"I was begging them, can I go to my room and go to sleep?" she said. "You rather be in your room than out there, believe me."

Unending confinement

On unit 3D, Frances, 16, had just spent 36 hours in her cell. She was trying to get into her spot in line when a male staffer reprimanded her and sent her back to her room.

After they exchanged words, he grabbed her by the collar of her shirt, she said, and she started grabbing back. Then, she reached for a chair and crate, and a second male staff member stepped in.

"That's when they restrained me, twisting my arms," said Frances, who was in detention 45 days the summer of 2004 for aggravated battery. "He was hitting me because I was hitting him too. I was kicking him."

"I ain't ever come out of my room until I went home," she said. She called her nine-day lockup "per administration" confinement, which she and other teenagers interpreted to mean, until staff let you out.

Frances spent her days in one of the rooms staff called "the projects" because they were smaller, without a desk. Other rooms were known as "the condos" with views of the recreation room's television that sometimes stayed on at night.

Reforms sought

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois originally filed a federal suit on behalf of center residents in 1999, but settled the action three years ago when the county agreed to improve conditions. Dissatisfied with the results, ACLU attorneys last month asked a federal judge to appoint an independent manager to lead reforms.

Critics charge that Stroger has used the center as a dumping ground for patronage hires unqualified to handle juveniles. Some of its leaders--including Supt. Robinson--have no corrections experience, and the Tribune found that many employees working there in recent months had criminal records.

Center officials turned over internal incident reports dated April to September to a federal judge that recorded 419 fights and 35 allegations of staff battering residents.

Teenagers said that the threat of violence was on their mind from the moment they took their first elevator rides up to their units.

They said they thought about how they ended up here, how they let little brothers down or aren't the fathers they want to be. They stayed up talking about their court or departure dates. Some cried themselves to sleep while others did push-ups. Boys banged on their doors.

The teens looked forward to school where many said they rarely learned anything, but watched movies, played on computers, met friends or made enemies.

They said cliques formed based on gang loyalties or resilience.

On their units, boys had to make clear that they could not be messed with. One way to achieve that status was to pass what Shawn, 16, called "the blueberry muffin test."

Boys would test a new resident by trying to take his muffin, one of the few beloved foods at the center, said Shawn, who was in unit 5B four days in October for violating probation. If a boy allowed others to take his muffin, they would know they could bully him. If the boy fought back, the other boys would have to respect him.

"You can't give your blueberry muffin up because that means you're sweet," Shawn said.

Gang lines were clear, and affiliations critical. Sometimes, even as they were walking in for the first time, boys were asked: "What you is?"

Despite problems in detention, teen love can bloom. Boys pass notes via "little errand boys," younger boys who live on the girls' units, or boys pound the floor with their fists to talk to girls below. And girls answer.

Even the fights seem like a natural part of life.

Marcellus, in detention for a robbery charge, was thankful one time when two staff members let him mix it up with another resident, after the two boys exchanged insults about their mothers.

"They was letting us fight for a minute. They were just watching," he said. The minutes allowed Marcellus and his opponent at least 10 punches without interruption. "I'm glad they let us do that. They let us get it off our chests."

Abuse denied

Robinson has promised improvements and publicly denied that staff members have allowed fights under his watch. The Cook County board has brought in the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which specializes in the care of disadvantaged children, to review how the center operates.

Last week Robinson again said he would move to fire any staff member found to be abusing residents.

"We've let everyone here know what's acceptable and what's not," Robinson said. "We're not going to tolerate it."

Next month, House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) plans to push legislation that would put the Cook County Circuit Court in control of the center, hopefully eliminating some of the patronage-hiring issues.

ACLU attorney Benjamin Wolf is ready to fight his battle in court.

"No matter how it happens, what we want to see is anyone with the proper expertise to come in and create and implement a plan to fix the center," Wolf said. "We need to move beyond cosmetic changes, and some independent, qualified juvenile justice professional needs to be put in charge."

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