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More trouble at Cook County’s juvenile jail

Monday, November 03, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times
by Better Government Association

The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center — known more colloquially as “Juvy” and “the Audy Home” — has been in the news lately amid revelations that a guard was charged with aggravated battery for allegedly slamming a 15-year-old detainee to the ground, knocking him unconscious.

We’ve since learned about another troubling incident with another guard, another juvenile inmate and Chicago police officers in recent weeks — underscoring the problems that persist at the juvenile jail even as oversight of the Chicago facility is poised to change hands from a federal appointee to the Cook County Circuit Court.

More on the oversight transition later. For now, this is what we pieced together on that second incident: A guard and a detainee apparently were butting heads for several days.

Late one night, while youth prisoners were locked in their “pods” and supposed to be sleeping, the guard allegedly unlocked the door of the detainee with whom he had trouble and the two began fighting, according to the facility’s top administrator, Earl Dunlap.

At some point, the detainee ended up with the guard’s keys and unlocked at least one other cell door, Dunlap said. And at some point the guard had an undisclosed medical emergency and ended up going to the hospital, Dunlap said. This last part remains a little fuzzy, with Dunlap saying: “Had there not been an incident, the guard likely would not have gone to the hospital.

The incident was the catalyst for that staff person going to the hospital. We have no information or reason to believe that the kid did anything that was a primary reason for the staff person going to the hospital.

”As for the incident itself, Dunlap said of the guard: “He unlocked the door, and there was an altercation. The kid came out of the room and . . . all the chaos began. The kid . . . had gotten out of his room and had the keys. So he unlocks some of the other doors and went into another kid’s room. The staff person follows . . . falls backwards, he’s out. And that’s when other staff responded.”

The guard should not have opened the door without a good reason, and without “backup,” Dunlap added. Officials would not release the name of the detainee or guard, so we couldn’t reach them to get their side of the story. Dunlap said his people are investigating the entire situation. ‘A boneheaded decision’

But it doesn’t end there. Prompted by that same fight between the guard and detainee, Chicago police were called that night to the facility, located at 1100 S. Hamilton on Chicago’s West Side, officials said. But rather than check their weapons before entering the cell area, at least two cops kept their guns with them — a major breach of protocol and common sense, Dunlap said.

As the logic goes, with a gun around, there’s a greater chance of an accidental shooting or a weapon being wrested away by inmates, who range in age from 10 to 21 and include gang members, accused murderers and the like. The facility currently has about 405 inmates — the majority awaiting trial — and 660 employees.

Cook County Jail has the same policy for the same reasons. “Weapons in a correctional [facility] compromise the safety of officers and inmates,” a spokeswoman for the jail said. Anyway, nothing ended up happening with the weapons, but Dunlap did suspend his deputy, Brenda Welch, for a week without pay for the breach.

“It was a boneheaded decision,” Dunlap said.

“Weapons are supposed to be checked. . . . They all know that. . . . I would’ve suspended my own mother.” Welch told us, “I take full responsibility for the incident. The police officers were escorted by me, an attorney and an investigator at all times.”

Dunlap, however, lays some of the blame on the police, who he said should’ve known better.

Chicago police spokesman Martin Maloney said he was unaware of the incident, and added that no officers have been disciplined. The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents most Chicago cops, also had no information to share on this.

Changing of the guard For all the recent troubles at the juvenile center — including the September incident, in which a guard body-slammed a detainee, prompting the guard’s arrest — most agree that overall conditions have improved. For decades, the detention center was under the control of Cook County government and was a patronage haven staffed by many employees with little training on how to deal with minors accused of crimes.

Prompted by these problems and others, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit in 1999 against Cook County, alleging the government agency wasn’t providing adequate safety and care for the youths in the detention complex. Stemming from that suit, Cook County — under then-Board President Todd Stroger — agreed to step back from overseeing the facility.

The court appointed Dunlap in 2007 to run things until the Circuit Court could assume control, under Chief Judge Timothy Evans. In other counties, it’s typical for the courts — rather than elected politicians — to oversee juvenile jails. The federal court (via U.S. District Judge James Holderman, whose office declined comment) has ultimate say on when Dunlap leaves and Evans takes control, and some expect a decision by the end of the year. Dunlap told us he’s worried Evans isn’t ready for the task and that reforms Dunlap implemented might be undone as a result. Evans said that any delays are because of Dunlap, and the judge added that he knows who he wants to run the center next. Dunlap said he’s not only improved programming for detainees, he’s improved staff training and stepped up discipline, eliminating an eight-month backlog of complaints against employees.

“This stuff is going to return really quickly if people are not proactive,” Dunlap said. “If they spend the next two years negotiating union contracts and aren’t able to get vacancies filled or discipline people quickly, they’re going to be back in the soup again.”

Dunlap added: “When I walked in, this place was like the gates of hell. I just fear what’s going to happen is [the facility will] go back into isolation.”



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