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A lesson in consequences
WEST PULLMAN | Jittery girls tour county jail and conclude it is a place they want to avoid

Monday, April 06, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Stefano Esposito

As a school bus full of eighth-grade girls bounced along a pothole-scarred road one day last week, fear had already crept into many of the conversations.

What if we get caught in the middle of a lockdown and can't leave? What if I start crying?

And there were plenty of nervous jokes exchanged among the 27 girls from West Pullman Elementary last week as they prepared for a tour of the Cook County Jail.

"I love colorful clothes, but I couldn't just wear orange," said Geneva Harris, a 14-year-old who says she wants to be either an astronomer, an archeologist or a chef when she grows up.

A jittery quiet fell over the group as they stood beside the jail's towering brick wall topped with coils of razor wire. And that, of course, was the reaction jail and school officials hoped for. The students were participating in Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart's Sheriff's Motivational and Responsibility Training program (SMART). West Pullman administrators reached out to the nonprofit, Communities In Schools of Chicago, which linked the school with the jail program. In a neighborhood rife with drug use and gangs, West Pullman Assistant Principal Mario Wright wanted his students to understand the consequences of "bad choices."

"At this age, although they think it's all about them, they also think they are invincible," said Wright, who accompanied a group of his male students on the same day the girls visited the jail.

Before the jail visit, staff there told the girls to walk in pairs with their arms linked. The girls often looked like they were clinging to each other as they walked through the jail's cinder-block corridors and peered through thick glass at the bored faces of inmates, who instantly perked up when they saw someone who wasn't a sheriff's deputy or another inmate.

"West Pullman? What's happening? I used to go there," said one inmate. Some of the students giggled. One whispered, "I'm scared."

A little later, the girls were shown the inside of a cell. A few moments inside the hot, cramped space with two metal bunks convinced most kids they never wanted to spend the night there. As the kids stepped out of the tiny room, an inmate in a cell across the way pushed her face up against a slender rectangular opening in her locked door. She watched the kids, but said nothing.

"It was sad because she was locked away from the world and she couldn't get out," said Shakira Gross, 14. "She was trapped."

A little bit later, a female inmate in her 50s was brought into a jail recreation room to talk to the students. She told them she had been in and out of prison for 30 years.

"I should be at home with my grandkids," she said. "I shouldn't be here talking to you."

On the bus ride back to school, the jokes returned -- but with a serious edge.

"I'm a vegetarian," Harris said. "No, seriously, I would starve."

"I would bring my own lunch," said one of Harris' friends, who didn't want her name used.

"How are you going to bring your own lunch [into a jail]?" Harris said. "The sad thing is all the women we saw probably had some kind of talent, but instead of using [it] for something good, they used it for something negative."

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