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A kinder Christmas for kids in jail
Holiday challenges a center in transition

Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Ofelia Casillas

Christmas morning will be the first time young residents at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center wake to find gifts just outside their glass cell doors.

These children and teenagers, most of whom are awaiting trial, will also have the chance to spend 12 hours a day, for 12 days, playing games: chess, basketball, even competing in a spelling bee, instead of watching endless hours of daytime television and missing home.

The changes are part of a larger attempt to improve conditions at the center, an effort that includes more restrictive rules for staff members accused of abusing residents, hearings for youth who break the rules and tastier lunch options than the usual cold cuts.

A recent tour of the facility, where the population tends to dip during the holiday season, offered a glimpse at life inside on the eve of new oversight.

Earlier this year, Cook County officials agreed to relinquish control of the center to the county's chief judge, Timothy Evans. Legislation allowing the change becomes effective Jan. 1.

The court will then take on some of the administrative responsibilities, such as power over purchasing and fiscal contracts.

In August, U.S. District Judge John Nordberg, who has overseen a battle between Cook County and the American Civil Liberties Union over the treatment of children at the facility, appointed a recognized national expert in juvenile justice to lead it.

Earl Dunlap once demonstrated his dedication to a Washington, D.C., juvenile facility he supervised by sleeping there. He insisted that he has not repeated the habit at the Cook County detention center.

"I've had to limit some of my radical behavior in my old age," he said.

Dunlap, who is in his early 60s, plans to confront the small group of "hardcore thugs" on staff at the facility who stand in the way of change.

"The good people will remain," he said. "The thugs will go."

Dunlap said he has taken some power to punish kids away from the staff and replaced that impulse with rules that ensure the residents are treated fairly.

"The power of the key has turned into the power of due process," he said.

Dunlap also addressed an issue some staff members have raised -- he is a white man overseeing a facility with mostly black residents and staff. Speaking about the staff, Dunlap added: "It's time for folks to step up and take responsibility for a population of kids that looks like them."

For now, Christmas is one of the many things staff members are working to improve.

Holidays used to be celebrated with candy-filled stockings, caroling volunteers and some decorations, workers said.

Today, teens hang blinking lights, sparkly garland and ornaments as they compete for best window display and a pizza party reward.

Staff members try to make sure that every child gets a call from family on Christmas Eve. In turn, kids are given cards to send home.

And good behavior is rewarded with microwaveable White Castle hamburgers.

The gifts outside cell doors will include thermal underwear, cards, board games and nicer-than-usual soaps, shampoos and toothbrushes.

During the holidays, residents can stay up late and watch movies. And the popcorn machine, which has not been used in three years, will pop again.

For teens who are homeless or unsafe at home, Christmas inside the detention center is a time to feel safe and rely on meals. Staff members estimate one in four residents are parents themselves and their sadness during the holidays is compounded by missing their own children as well as parents and siblings.

Some staff members volunteered to work extra hours and try to help residents get through what can be one of the toughest days of the year to be locked up.

"An emotional roller coaster -- that's what I would sum it up as," said Sherod Dent, a caseworker.

Dent said because some residents are able to go home before the holidays, incarceration is harder on those forced to remain. They are disappointed, resentful or just desolate.

"It's going to be hard," said a 15-year-old boy from Harvey, who was hanging Christmas lights like he does at home. "I'm used to doing it at home with my mom telling me what to do."

This is the third Christmas at the detention center for an 18-year-old man from Chicago Heights awaiting trial on murder charges. The third, he said, is easier than the first.

"It was bogus, you know, sad. You feel sorrow," he said. "I'll be home one day. That day will come."

At night, staff members said, the artistic creations of residents can be seen in their most glorious display.

It is then that the snowmen, angels and candy canes that cover unit windows glow in rows above the empty recreation yard below.

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