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'My freedom is gone'
JUVENILE DETENTION CENTER | Teen volunteers get firsthand look at troubled Cook County facility, talk to residents about conditions

Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times
by ANNIE SWEENEY

Months ago, they showed up at Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's office with underwear, insisting that it be sent to residents at the county's detention center.
The teens and young adults -- who volunteer or work at several citywide youth organizations -- had heard about the failing conditions at the center.
Last week, teenagers and young adults from across the city got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and a chance to question the new administrator, Earl Dunlap.
The visit was organized by the groups as part of campaign to improve conditions at the center. With notepads in hand, they asked residents how many pairs of underwear they have and what kind of toiletries they receive. They grilled staffers about purchasing. They pointed out toilets coated with grime. They were told that some staffers are nice, some violent -- punching and kicking or slamming youths to the ground.
"It's like I'm locked up in a cage; my freedom is gone,'' one resident told Jessie Belton, 19, who works at Southwest Youth Collaborative and who detailed the reports of violence.
Administrator sees strides
After the hourlong tour, Dunlap met with the group to field questions about the center.
"Nobody is gonna say this place is perfect,'' Dunlap said, " 'cause we're just getting started.''
But Dunlap and other staff members also said they had already made strides, pointing to the cheery Christmas decorations and a tougher stance on staff members accused of abuse of residents. Dunlap said he's moving to remove staff if investigations find a complaint substantiated. And underwear has been purchased for all the residents, the visitors were told.
Woes at the detention center have been well-documented over the eight years since a federal lawsuit was filed to demand better conditions at the West Side facility. Complaints of physically abusive guards, unclean conditions, lack of mental health access and, recently, dirty underwear have been detailed in several reports to the court. Dunlap was appointed in August.
For the most part, the visitors were allowed to speak candidly with the residents. When they reached a wing for girls, they came across a teen who was on lockdown. She stood at the window of her room, gazing out at the flurry of activity.
On the other side of the door was Chevonne Linear, a 16-year-old student at Phoenix Military Academy. As the resident gazed at her, Linear read a log posted on the girl's door, noting the activities in her room every 15 minutes: Sheets changed. Standing at door. Eating. Speaking with a caseworker.
"That's crazy,'' Linear said.
A staff member explained that the log is for security -- the staff needs to monitor the resident's activity so long as she is on lockdown.
"I just feel so sorry for them,'' Linear said of the residents.


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