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Steele touts improvements at county juvenile center

Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Chicago Defender
by Cheryl Ricci, AP

County officials are seeing gradual but definite changes at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, which has been plagued with charges of violence and abuse against residents there.
At a news conference Tuesday, Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele and detention center Superintendent J.W. Fairman Jr., appointed in August to run the facility, identified improvements in child welfare, staffing and finances that have been implemented in recent months.
Fairman said his staff is working hard to analyze and improve conditions at the center, which he said has been "in need of a major overhaul."
The center, at 1100 S. Hamilton Ave., houses approximately 450 youths awaiting trial or serving time for crimes committed.
In 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit claiming substandard conditions and abuse at the center. In 2003 a settlement was reached, but disagreements between the ACLU and the county board remain over progress in meeting the terms of the agreement.
Fairman pointed to changes made for the health and welfare of detainees at the center. Changes include providing pajamas, pillows and extra underwear to residents as well as evening snacks and enhanced laundry processes.
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These provisions are what Steele called "basic staples that all children should have" and are a "comfort to a child who is incarcerated and is scared and alone."
In addition to these "staples," Fairman looked to staffing at the center, an issue brought up in a report by the Illinois prison watchdog group the John Howard Association in October. Fairman disagreed with the association's assessment that more counselors were needed, but did say the center needed more supervisors on staff.
Fairman also said center staff was not given specific instructions or job descriptions. An evaluation of staff and a financial audit are being conducted.
Malcolm C. Young, executive director of the John Howard Association, said in
August the organization saw leadership in place with the capacity and energy to make necessary changes. "Finally, there was some reason to feel optimism," he
said.
However, Young has some concerns over one issue from his center's report -
the reporting of abuse or poor treatment at the hands of staff or other detainees. While his center found the current method, on file in court proceedings, to be unsatisfactory, he feels addressing those issues would not be difficult.
Despite these concerns, Young said, most of what was said at Tuesday's press conference was not an overstatement, and although it took some time, things at the center are "going in the right direction."
Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU, is more cautious. "These are chronic issues that affect the health and safety of children," he said. "We're going to stay on top of it and make sure it gets resolved. I certainly hope this effort works."
Fairman acknowledged that despite the recent changes and ongoing analyses, there is still work to be done.
"I think we just scratched the surface," he said. Absent closing the center to start over again, he said, "it's going to take time to trickle down."
Steele echoed his opinion, saying progress takes time, but the current team, which includes assistant superintendents assigned within the past 60 days, has
made "remarkable progress."



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