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Access to textbooks, pencils restricted in detention centers

Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Belleville News Democrat
by NATHANIEL HERNANDEZ

CHICAGO - When the hundreds of minors locked up in Cook County's temporary juvenile detention center end their school days, there's one bit of contraband they must leave behind in the classroom: their textbooks.
Policies prohibiting the unsupervised use of hardcover books and other basic school supplies like pencils are common at U.S. juvenile detention centers, where security concerns must be balanced with the children's need for access to educational materials.
Detention officials say the restrictions prevent the youths from hurting themselves or each other, but child welfare advocates say the rules can create a prison-like atmosphere that discourages rehabilitation.
"Any facility ought to be safe and secure enough for kids to have books," said Betsy Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative.
The issue was among many that came under scrutiny at Cook County's detention center when the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a federal lawsuit in 1999 accusing county workers of mismanaging the facility.
The suit, which alleged conditions that "bred neglect, abuse and violence," was settled in 2002, but continuing concerns led a judge to appoint a former state corrections official this month to oversee changes at the facility.
Some of the problems extended into the classrooms at the center's Nancy Jefferson School, juvenile advocates said.
"Teachers consistently said they do not assign homework because (detention center) staff do not allow the youths to bring books or even pages to come back up the unit," the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative concluded after reviewing practices at the facility in December.
Jerry Robinson, superintendent of the detention center, said the assessment was unfair.
"They have the ability to get a pencil," Robinson said. "They can write letters. We just control it so (the pencil) is not kept in the room."
The detention center is home to Chicago area youths between the ages of 10 and 17 who have been accused of committing crimes ranging from theft to murder. On any given day, between 450 and 500 youths in grades 4-12 are held there.
The vast majority are adolescent males who've gotten caught up in gangs, guns and drugs. Their average stay is 14 to 28 days, but some youths can be held for up to three months or longer.
Judith Adams, the school's principal, said her staff compensates for the limited access to textbooks by working closely with students during extracurricular study periods.
Thick textbooks can be used as weapons or to transport cigarettes or drugs, she said.
"We really understand why the detention center is cautious about having kids transport things," Adams said. "That's why we started the afterschool homework policy in our school, to give the kids the resources they need without having them have to carry books upstairs."
Outside of school hours, youths who ask for access to hardcover books are taken to the detention center's library. Softcover books are allowed into living units and the children can obtain a pencil, but it must be returned once they are done.
Opinions vary on what impact such restrictions may have on children who are often struggling in school or not going at all at the time of their arrest. But juvenile justice advocates widely agree that overly restrictive policies can be harmful.
"If it's a culture of regimentation, it tells the kids they are inmates. If it's a culture of support and is building on the strengths of the kids, it's a completely different atmosphere," said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy in Washington D.C.
"The key to running a good juvenile facility is to keep the young kids occupied all the time, and the biggest part of that obviously is education," Soler added.
Detention officials in other big cities like New York and Los Angeles also restrict textbook use in juvenile centers.
"What they could do is stick it in their pillow case and use it as a weapon," said Larry Rubin, director of the agency that oversees incarcerated youths in Los Angeles. "You could really hit somebody pretty hard with it."
Scott Trent, spokesman for New York City's juvenile justice department, said textbooks are allowed in their living units only if a counselor is present.
"Seemingly everyday items that are not manufactured with the intent to hurt someone can be used to do that by a juvenile who is thinking that way," Trent said.
Forty miles west of Chicago in DuPage County, jailed youths can keep hardcover books and pencils in their rooms. They can also borrow up to three books at a time from the school's library.
"That's our major and only source of contraband: kids having too many library books in their rooms," said Bernard Glos, superintendent of the Wheaton facility.
The DuPage County detention center switched to a less restrictive environment with an "intense behavior modification program" following an expansion in 1999.
"One of the problems we have in our society is we have built juvenile detention centers in the adult, Supermax model," Glos said. "We have designed juvenile detention centers as if they are the worst of the adult offenders. ... We have to focus on them as kids, not as superpredators."
If the children at Cook County's center end up in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections, they are allowed to keep basic school supplies in their living units.
Roger Williams, acting superintendent of IDOC School District 428 in Sangamon County, said the youths can have textbooks and pencils but not three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks and other metal objects.
Adams said the policies at Cook County don't appear to be preventing kids from getting excited about learning. A recent online course offered in the school's computer lab proved very popular, said Kenya Johnson, an instructor at Nancy Jefferson.
"As a matter of fact, we have a lot of kids that come by and ask if they can miss gym and come here, which is odd," Johnson said. "They're boys."


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