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`I'm just doing my job'

Sunday, August 28, 2005
Chicago Tribune
Editorial

You've heard the term, "chokehold." It means just what it says. From behind, you put your arm around the head of someone you're trying to subdue, hook your elbow under his chin and squeeze his neck. For maximum effect, you can lift him off the ground.

The restraint is also called a "sleeper hold," because the person being restrained can appear as though he has fallen asleep. In fact, he has passed out from lack of oxygen, sometimes because the cartilage surrounding his windpipe has just been crushed like tin foil.

The chokehold is an effective restraint. So effective, it can cause brain damage in less than a minute by blocking the oxygen supply.

So effective, it can kill.

Chokeholds are considered to be so dangerous that they have been banned by most police departments, prisons and psychiatric hospitals. The chokehold was banned three years ago at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Officials there say it's not used.

But it is. Detention Center employees told the Tribune they have seen it used. Last winter, workers said, one supervisor showed off photos of a boy with bruises on his neck, saying they resulted from a chokehold.

"We continue to hear reports about kids being choked until they pass out and then they're put in their locked rooms," said Benjamin Wolf, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought a federal lawsuit against the Detention Center, forcing a binding consent decree in 2002. "We believe it's still happening."

- - -

The chokehold is an example of how the Detention Center has turned into a chaotic, dangerous, leaderless disaster.

Youths arrested in Cook County for crimes and probation violations are held at the Detention Center. They are held there, rather than at Cook County Jail, because the county is determined to treat youths differently than it treats adults. For more than a century, that has been the promise of the juvenile justice system.

The youths are supposed to be held, but they are also supposed to be protected, counseled, directed in how to straighten out their lives.

Not here. Not a chance.

On a recent tour of the center by a member of the Tribune editorial board, workers were seen cursing and yelling at kids who were simply walking down the hall.

Last year, a juvenile counselor was arrested for hitting a 15-year-old boy so hard he knocked out two of the boy's front teeth. The counselor was acquitted of battery charges in criminal court but was fired by the county.

J.W. Fairman, the county's public safety director who oversaw the center at the time, said he was "chagrined" by the judge's ruling on the battery charges. "I'm looking at pictures of the kid's mouth," Fairman said. "I mean, come on, you've got to explain something to me other than, `Oh, I was defending myself.'"

Kids at the Detention Center have to live amid rats, mold and their own filth.

One juvenile counselor said some of the kids stay in the same clothes for as long as a week at a time. "They're supposed to wash out their own underwear, but some units have washing machines and some don't," said the counselor, who declined to be identified because the center won't allow employees to speak to the press. "They have to wash it out by hand themselves on the unit and hope that it dries overnight."

Parents can bring in five pairs of socks and underwear each week. But only one in four kids in the center ever gets a visit from a relative.

Gang symbols and graffiti are everywhere. Inside one medical unit cell, equipped with body and head straps for mechanical restraint, someone had scrawled "By by bitch" above the door.

Most of the people hired to guard minors at the center have little or no experience working with troubled youth. Kids are confined in cells for as long as 36 hours for such minor rule violations as not removing their shoes or taking food from someone else's plate, according to the John Howard Association, the court-appointed monitor for the Detention Center.

"You see kids watching television while supervisors kind of stand around instead of engaging them or tutoring them," said Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool. That was confirmed by the Tribune on recent visits, where staff members chatted among themselves, all but ignoring their charges--a girl plunked in front of "One Life to Live," 17 boys in the gym playing basketball or slumped against a wall, three girls in the library on the computer.

Several years ago, one youth broke a fourth-floor window and jumped out. It took a while for Detention Center workers to notice he was gone, according to a former medical unit employee.

Youths there have high rates of mental disorders and serious medical conditions. Roughly two-thirds take prescription medication and nearly one-fifth take psychotropic medications, which are used to treat mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and psychotic thought disorders, according to center statistics.

Medical emergencies occur regularly. Yet when a Tribune writer asked to see the medical unit's crash cart, used to stabilize kids in cases of cardiac irregularities, diabetic reactions and asthma attacks, nurses looked high and low. They seemed to be unsure of what a crash cart was. It was finally found by the writer--buried under junk in a cell used for storage.

- - -

"There's a difference between caring for a kid and doing your job," said one counselor. "I'm just doing my job."

That kind of ignorance and callousness is routine at the Detention Center. It is not a place that sets kids straight. It is a $23 million-a-year institution that is guilty of abuse and neglect.



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