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ACLU: Cook County juvenile center must be fixed

Thursday, September 08, 2005
Star
by Kimberly S. Wetzel

Violence against children, a lack of oversight and staffing problems still plague the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center more than two years after a federal judge ordered the county to clean up the facility, the American Civil Liberties Union charged recently.

The ACLU sued the county in 1999 alleging more than 50 problems at the detention center, ranging from employee violence toward the young detainees – particularly putting children in chokeholds – to rat and roach infestation.

During an interview with the Medill News Service, ACLU officials complained about the lack of progress being made under an agreement reached in early
2003.

"There are certainly some areas of progress, but we've been frustrated in other areas," said Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director for the Illinois Chapter of the ACLU. "We're still not satisfied."

The detention center, located at 1100 S. Hamilton Ave., and formerly known as the Audy Home, houses about 450 young offenders who are awaiting trial or who are serving time in custody for crimes they committed.

Wolf said the county improved sanitation and food safety as well as detainees' access to medical care. But the county hasn't removed violent staff members, and detainees continue to get into fist fights with little staff oversight, he said.

In addition, Wolf said it took the county too long to hire a new director for the detention center. Jerry Robinson, a Chicago police veteran who headed the organized crime division, was hired in June after the position was vacant for more than a year.

"So nobody was minding the store," Wolf said.

The ACLU, in partnership with students at the Northwestern University Law School Clinic, recently interviewed detainees at the center. The students found that violence against the children is still common, and placing children in chokeholds was still regularly used to subdue them, Wolf said.

"They still haven't gotten rid of physically abusive staff members," he added.

The ACLU and the county reached an agreement in March 2003 calling for the county to improve or correct 58 problem areas at the detention center, including staff training and discipline, rules regarding the use of force and restraint, security, food service and pest control.

According to the details of the agreement, the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, will oversee the progress. John Howard Association president James "Chip" Coldren said the agreement included a five-year timeline, and "it's going to take every bit of those five years to solve all those problems."

Coldren said that although there have been some improvement at the detention center; like Wolf he is disappointed with the county's lack of progress so far.

"Clearly, [the county] was responsive to the medical issues," Coldren said. "On other issues, I wouldn't call it non-responsive, but it's taking a lon time for them to resolve these issues."

Coldren noted that the detention center has received accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, a Chicago-based group that monitors health care standards at prisons nationwide. He said that was a big step forward.

But, he added, "meeting [the standards] on paper for accreditation is much different than physical compliance."

Repeated efforts to contact Robinson were unsuccessful. But John Gibson, a spokesman for Cook County Board President John Stroger, said the detention center is making important strides.

"In a monitoring report written within the past year, the court-appointed monitor acknowledged that accreditation is a significant achievement and stated that the center has achieved the distinction of meeting 100 percent of essential and important standards, a fairly rare achievement for any facility," Gibson said in a written statement.

Robinson has stated in previous interviews that he has been working to do a better job of screening potential employees, including administering drug tests. He added that he also is planning to track and investigate claims of abuse and violence at the detention center.



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