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The path forward from juvenile detention: Making sure ‘my next step is my best step’
Young adults in the West Side’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center are offered job training, life skills and support from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who shared her brother’s story of entering a revolving door of prison at their age.
Sunday, September 29, 2019 Chicago Sun-Times by Maudlyne Ihejirika
At age 15 and involved in gang life, Jason Silvestre found himself locked up for two years at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Chicago’s West Side.
“At first it was terrible. I was an angry person,” said Silvestre, now 20, of Logan Square.
“I started seeing all these different programs they had, and after a year, I said, ‘You know what? I’m in here. I might as well take advantage and do something productive with my time instead of just sitting around looking mad all day,’ ” he said.
He got involved in a painter’s apprentice program offered to youth at the center through its philanthropic arm, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center Foundation.
Founded in 2009, the foundation provides funding for life- and jobs-skills training, educational and therapeutic activities for the 200-250 youth housed on any given day at one of the nation’s largest juvenile jails — the five-story building located two miles from County Jail.
More than 90 percent of the youth there are Black or Hispanic; 93 percent are male.
To mark its 10th anniversary, the foundation held its first-ever fundraiser on Friday night, highlighting success stories like Silvestre, who upon release, enrolled full-time in a painter’s trade school, and just completed three years in the program, now earning a legitimate living.
“I go to school one day a week, and work the other four days. And the pay is good,” Silvestre said at the gala held at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
“I used to play with drugs and guns and stuff like that. That was my life. Now it’s like, I have a paintbrush in my hand that I get for no more than $20. It lasts me for a while, and I don’t have to look over my shoulder.”
The event’s chair was none other than Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who, the week before, visited the jail at 1100 S. Hamilton Ave. with foundation Executive Director D. Sharon Grant. There, she addressed an audience of some 50 youths, then met privately with 10 of them afterward.
Lightfoot shared her own brother’s story of entering the revolving door of prison as a youth; and as she frequently does when engaging with youth, sought insights directly from them on solutions to the deadly violence gripping inner-city neighborhoods many of them call home.
“It was really at the age of a lot of these kids in the center that my brother started on his path to being in the streets,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“He grew up in the same household that I did, and made a lot of choices that made his life tremendously hard,” she said. “As a consequence, he spent most of his adult life locked up in prison, and he’s now a man in his early 60s with only a high-school degree. He struggles every single day, and it’s very, very difficult for him to find legitimate work.
“What I wanted to let them know is that I have that experience in my own family, and how hard it is and difficult, if they let that happen,” she added. “But also, that they can take control of their own destiny. They don’t have to stay in those kind of choices that put them on a path from which it’s going to take them years, if not decades, to recover.”
Lightfoot spoke before 250 attendees at the gala in support of JTDC’s work, preceding keynote speaker Arne Duncan, former U.S. education secretary now managing partner at Emerson Collective, a group that aims to create jobs and life opportunities for disconnected youths aged 17 to 24.
The Juvenile Temporary Detention Center formerly housed youth ages 10-16. But last year, under a wave of juvenile justice reform efforts sweeping the nation, the minimum incarceration age was raised to 13. Younger children are now rerouted to alternatives through the state’s Comprehensive Community Based Youth Services.
“This is about pulling our children off the highway to prison and putting them on the highway to achievement. We detain the children, and while we have their attention, we need to make sure we give them something to take back to the community that they can begin to survive with,” said Grant.
“They were so engaged during the mayor’s visit,” she added. “These are children that never get a chance to meet anyone who looks like them that’s doing something positive.”
Silvestre will finish the trade program next year. He said he hasn’t given thought to long-term goals yet. He’s just grateful for having gotten help to veer off his path in the past.
“I’m just going to make sure my next step is my best step. Life is going really, really well,” he said. “I’m a changed person. I’m happy now, you know? And I’m thankful.”