Ryan Schill is the editor of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. In 2012 he wrote a comics journalism piece about the ongoing U.S. immigration debate, published in partnership with Cartoon Movement. His 2011 story about a case of misdiagnosed child abuse won first place in the non-deadline writing category of the Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Awards for Excellence in Journalism. Ryan is completing his MA in professional writing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and has a BS in media studies. His research interests include experimental journalism forms, journalism ethics and philosophy, theories of literary journalism and the intersections of social justice and journalism.
Violent protests and looting erupted Sunday night in a St. Louis suburb following a candlelight vigil honoring an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed Saturday by a police officer.
Hundreds of protestors, some chanting "No justice, no peace," were met by police in riot gear with shields and rifles, and K-9 units, Sunday night following a vigil for Brown, The New York Times reports. The demonstrations turned violent overnight as protestors damaged police cars and looted stores.
Brown's family pleaded with protestors for an end to the violence and looting, saying it is not what the teen would have wanted.
According to police, 18-year-old Michael Brown attacked a police officer and was fatally shot Saturday as the two wrestled for the officer's gun. The statement was met by skepticism and anger in Ferguson, Mo., a largely black community.
A Justice Department spokesperson in Washington said Attorney General Eric Holder has asked attorneys with the Civil Rights Division to monitor events in Ferguson.
Financial supporters of JJIE may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.
Two first-term senators from opposite sides of the aisle introduced legislation Tuesday banning the use of juvenile solitary confinement in federal facilities, along with several other reforms that would impact juveniles offenders, The Washington Post reports.
New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, who sponsored The Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (or REDEEM) Act, say it will cut government spending, reduce recidivism among adults and juveniles and increase public safety.
"The REDEEM Act will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways," Booker said in a news release. "It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders reoffend."
The proposal encourages states to raise the age in which juveniles can be tried as adults to 18. States implementing this reform would be given preference when applying for federal community policing grants.
Booker and Paul also proposed that the records of juveniles who commit nonviolent crimes be sealed or expunged depending on the youth's age when the crime was committed.
"The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record," Paul said. "Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration."
The United States is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's prison population, a statistic the pair of senators cite as evidence that sweeping reforms are necessary to fix a broken criminal justice system.
According to Politico, the bill, which also includes a number of reforms to the criminal justice system, is unlikely to advance this year.
Financial supporters of The JJIE may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.
A short drive outside the downtown of a small east Alabama city, set back from the road among the trees on a low hill, is an unassuming, one-story brick building. The bulky, straight lines of its facade give it the appearance of a 1970s-era post office. The building is unremarkable in almost every way — a physical expression of bureaucracy. A sign near the road reads, “Youth Services.” Affixed to the brick exterior are silver letters that spell “DETENTION CENTER.”
Just inside those walls are boys as young as 10 and as old as 18 who have been charged with juvenile offenses. The kids may stay for months or for just a few hours, but the detention center isn’t meant to be a long-term home. It’s one temporary stop on their journey through the juvenile justice system. By all accounts, it is one of the most progressive detention centers in Alabama. Its administrators and staff embrace openness and transparency. It is rare for a reporter or photographer to be given access to the inside of a detention center, but I was welcomed here.
Past the building’s entrance and its dark glass doors is a small lobby with a few chairs. A heavy steel door divides the world of the free from the world of the detained and those who watch over them. With some reluctance I crossed the threshold of the door and entered the detention center proper.
I was immediately struck by the depression and resignation trapped like bad air inside the cinderblock walls. Although the staff were friendly and appeared to genuinely care about the boys for whom they were responsible, the detention center itself did not reflect this. Dimly lit hallways echoed only the sound of my footsteps. The raucous energy of teenage boys was absent, leaving a disquieting vacuum. The boys themselves were sequestered away, lounging together on worn-out beanbags in a large, dimly lit room, their eyes fixed on a television projecting brightly colored moving images across their expressionless faces.
A series of heavy steel doors painted the same dull beige as the wall lined a dim hallway. Stenciled in white spray paint upon each door were the letters “IS” and a number — “01,” “02,” “03” — continuing up to “07.” These were the isolation rooms, where juveniles detained at the center could be sent as punishment for violating the rules, or for protection if they are the target of violence by another youth.
Thousands of young people in the United States are placed in solitary every year. In many detention facilities, juveniles can be kept in an isolation cell for months at a time, or for a single day. During that time they may spend as many as 23 hours a day alone in a small concrete cell, their only human contact with facility staff. Often they are not allowed even a book to pass the time. The cell door may be unlocked once a day for "hygiene" and exercise.
The doors to the solitary cells were open in front of me — no youth were being held in isolation on that day — and I lingered for a moment. The isolation rooms were small and mostly empty. The only objects inside the cell were a metal cot, a thin sleeping mat folded in half on top of the cot and a combined metal toilet and sink in the front corner. A thin, vertical strip of a window, filled with opaque glass, was set in the rear corner, but the room’s light was overwhelmingly fluorescent and unnatural. I stood uncomfortably in the doorway, unwilling to go farther inside. I imagined standing in the isolation cell as the door swung shut behind me. How would I respond if I were locked in here? It was a terrifying thought.
At that moment I realized that no other room in the facility so clearly communicated its own singular purpose. This was a purely punitive space. All the good intentions in the world couldn’t change this, so that even a youth placed in the room for their own protection faced the potential mental harm isolation could cause.
The room was, in fact, designed to be a punitive space. Before it was built someone sat down and drew lines on paper defining the space, and they placed those lines where they did intentionally.
Intention. I’d always considered the word to have a positive connotation. But here I was, presented with the darker side of intention. It was clear that the slim, opaque window had been placed intentionally. The toilet was designed as it was intentionally, and placed where it was intentionally. The same was true of the metal cot, the paint on the cinder block walls and the formidable door that would seal the room off from the rest of the building — and cut off a young person from most human contact. All of these decisions were made intentionally in order to create a room whose sole purpose is to isolate a juvenile from the rest of the detention center, whether as punishment or for safety.
So whose intention led to the design of this room?
I returned home from my tour of the detention center grateful for and fully aware of the fact that I had been incredibly fortunate to avoid time in a similar facility when I was a teenager. Like so many of us, I made my share of poor decisions when I was young. But, whether through pure, stupid luck or because I made those poor choices at a time just before the widespread use of zero-tolerance rules — or maybe it was simply because I was white and middle class — I was never pulled in to the juvenile justice system and I never faced the horrifying prospect of long-term detention or, even worse, isolation.
But the question of intention lingered.
On reflection, my realization that someone has to design juvenile detention centers appears obvious — an example of privileged ignorance, perhaps, or maybe just ordinary naivete. But we must all acknowledge that we routinely take for granted architecture and design. How often do we take time to consider that someone designed our home, our office, the fast food restaurant where we grabbed lunch or the mall in which we shopped for a birthday present? We may rarely, if ever, think about it, but it remains true nonetheless. And it is just as true for the buildings and spaces that we hope never to visit — the prisons, jails and youth detention centers.
And so, like a casual movie fan who takes a film studies class and finds they can no longer watch a movie without analyzing the “mise-en-scene,” I began to see intentional design everywhere, and my thoughts returned to the isolation rooms I’d seen in the Alabama juvenile detention center, and extended to the isolation rooms I’d probably never see in juvenile facilities across the United States.
In his essay, Sperry never specifically discusses isolation rooms in juvenile detention centers. But, I thought, if isolation rooms in adult prisons have the potential to violate human rights it would follow that the same would also be true — if not more true — of isolation rooms in juvenile detention centers.
I asked Sperry about this in a telephone interview. He agreed with my logic, but went one step farther.
“I think it’s possible to say that juvenile halls that are built to the standard of not violating human rights can still be pretty horrible places and wouldn’t live up to the aspiration of human rights, even though you’ve designed them without isolation,” he said.
“There are a lot of things that you can do in juvenile halls that are extremely unpleasant and that make for really bad outcomes for kids,” he said. But even though these things “create a lot of human suffering,” he added, they may not qualify as human rights violations according to standards set by the United Nations and others.
Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.
(“Intended” ... There’s that word again.)
Sperry says that not only is the new language more specific, if approved the statement would be included in the code as an enforceable rule instead of the current language’s designation as an “ethical standard,” which is really just an impossible-to-enforce suggestion for professional practice.
"The core of professional ethics for architects revolves around protecting public health, safety and welfare," Sperry said. Additionally this new language would put architects in step with the ethics of medical professionals, which, at a minimum, specifically prohibit participating in executions and torture.
Nevertheless, Sperry’s proposed language raises a question the United States (and at least one recent presidential administration) has struggled with for years: How do we define torture? In fact, how do we define what are human rights? Because one man’s “torture” is another’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
For its part, ADPSR accepts human rights standards defined by the United Nations.
“If we are committed to human rights, which is the language the AIA chose [and] which I still support, that links us to the whole international human rights system,” Sperry said. “That means we should take seriously what the United Nations says.”
For example, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, said the isolation of adults should be used only in the most “exceptional circumstances” and the solitary confinement of juveniles and the mentally ill should be banned outright by all nations.
“Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system,” he told the U.N. General Assembly’s third committee in 2011. “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Before beginning his campaign, Sperry read much of the research cited by the U.N. “about the irreversible psychological damage that people experience when they are in solitary confinement.”
“It’s the denial of any opportunity for any social contact, or any physical contact, that is so painful and cruel, inhuman and degrading,” Sperry said. “And there are elements of the architectural design, especially in supermax prisons for adults, where you see that really borne out in a striking way.”
The U.N. isn’t the only organization decrying the use of juvenile isolation. A 2012 report jointly published by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, "Growing Up Locked Down," found that because juveniles “are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow." And a recent letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, which was signed by 40 advocacy groups, called on Holder to prohibit the use of solitary confinement on youth in federal custody. "The practice is not only cruel," the letter says, "but counterproductive for both rehabilitation and facility security."
Sperry’s campaign to keep architects from designing spaces for isolation or other human rights violations appears to be making headway. An online petition has received some 1,300 digital signatures as of March 13, and at least one local AIA chapter has endorsed the proposed amendment to the code of ethics.
In fact, increased public and political attention has been put on the use of solitary confinement for both youth and adults, so that the ADPSR campaign has become one strong voice in a growing choir. In February, a Congressional hearing explored the possibility of implementing a ban on the use of isolation for certain inmates. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called solitary confinement of juveniles “a human rights issue we can’t ignore.”
The Abuse of Spaces
Laura Abrams, associate professor and chair of the Social Welfare Doctoral Program at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, has worked in residential facilities, many with isolation cells. In 2013, she testified before the California state Senate Public Safety committee about juvenile solitary confinement.
“The use of solitary confinement is not an evidence-based practice in behavior modification or in psychiatric care,” she told the committee. “To the contrary, a robust body of research confirms that isolated confinement can provoke and/or exacerbate severe psychiatric symptoms of psychosis, hallucinations, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.”
When I spoke with Abrams she was not aware of the campaign by Sperry and ADPSR to keep architects from designing isolation spaces. I asked her what she thought of it.
“I think that the problem isn’t that there are the spaces; I think the problem is that they’re abused,” she said. However, she added, “some of the spaces are designed to be punitive. They look punitive. I think we have to reorient our thinking toward safety, treatment — but sometimes youth will have to go in those rooms.”
The reality is that juvenile detention facilities can be dangerous places, she added.
“Given that there are times that the youth are at risk of harming themselves or others, and given that are different levels of facilities that handle youth with severe mental disabilities or very violent tendencies, there need to be spaces for youth to be separated from others,” she said. “Sometimes you need to be able to separate the youth who are acting out, and you need to be able to do that in a safe and therapeutic way.”
Psychological support is crucial, she said, including regular visits from a counselor.
Abrams likens it to how a parent responds to an unruly child at home.
“I mean, why do parents send their kids to their rooms? It’s the same principle as that,” she said. “When my kids are feeling out of control I’ll say, ‘You can go up to your room and calm down and in 10 minutes I’ll come up and we can talk about it.’ You give them a time frame and then you follow that isolation with some kind of therapeutic support.”
The problem, she says, is that in corrections that usually doesn’t happen.
Although Abram’s position made sense to me when considered through the pragmatic perspective of someone with experience working inside residential facilities, I couldn’t square it with my own impressions of solitary. I couldn’t imagine how the isolation cells I visited could be ever used for anything other than punishment. How could those hard, sterile rooms, which are designed intentionally for sensory-deprivation, be used therapeutically, even if a young person only spent a brief time inside? I couldn’t see how any counseling that might take place in an isolation cell could result in a positive outcome — the room simply wouldn’t allow it. Only distress and anxiety could survive in that sort of space.
But ultimately it is the isolation that can be so damaging to a young person’s mental health. Even a calm, zen garden theoretically could be used to keep someone isolated from the rest of society. What chance does a room stand when its very intention is isolation? Was this not precisely why the U.N. (and more recently, Sen. Durbin) called for a complete ban on placing youth in isolation cells?
Maybe, Abrams told me, something could be done to remove the stigma and the punitive nature of isolation cells.
In her book, “Compassionate Confinement,” Abrams describes in detail the detention facility in which she conducted a 16-month study. Not far from the facility’s common room is a hallway leading to the youth’s sleeping area, she writes. Along this hallway is:
a single secure cell called the isolation room consisting of a small window, a concrete bed-slab without a mattress, and an exposed toilet and sink. The locked door of this room had a narrow observation window through which the entire room is visible. On our first tour of the dorm, the head of Unit C informed us that the isolation room was used only rarely for youth who were really out of control. Nevertheless, its centrality and visibility (residents walked past the isolation room on the way to and from their sleeping area) clearly made it a looming threat and perhaps the main reminder to us and the residents that this was indeed a juvenile jail.
I tried to recall where the isolation cells were situated in the detention center I visited. They were placed along the hallway leading to the dorms. You couldn’t go to bed at night without passing them.
Blaming the Architect
Perhaps Abrams was correct — that isolation cells were a necessary tool for maintaining the safety of everyone inside a juvenile detention facility, residents and staff included. On a day-to-day basis this could very well be true. But I remembered something Raphael Sperry, the architect and president of ADPSR, told me during our earlier conversation, which I had originally dismissed as an interesting anecdote, confining it away in my reporter’s notebook.
Sperry told me this: “Probably, today, the vast majority of torture and killing — human rights abuses — take place in spaces that weren’t intended for that purpose. In Argentina, the regime in the ‘80s during the dirty war, their number one torture center was an auto repair shop. Nobody’s going to blame the architect of the auto repair shop for it having become [a place of torture].”
Every isolation cell in every juvenile detention center in the United States could be redesigned with calm muted paint colors, cushioned mattresses with soft sheets and blankets, and luxurious, private bathrooms but it wouldn’t matter. Their purpose would remain to isolate the youth from contact with others. And whether that isolation meant for punishment or for safety, it would never change the fact that isolation is inherently mentally damaging to a young person’s still-developing brain.
If the AIA adopts Sperry’s proposed language, the intention of isolation could no longer be assigned to architects. New prisons or juvenile detention facilities built in the country subsequent to the rule’s adoption would be free of rooms intended to be used for isolation or solitary.
But what about rooms or spaces that were not initially intended for that purpose? Couldn’t prison and juvenile detention center administrators simply repurpose some other room in their facility so that it functions as an isolation cell? Freeing architects of the responsibility may simply lay bare the intentions of many in the U.S. criminal and juvenile justice systems.
That remains to be seen. There will always be rooms in which to keep someone isolated, and all of the therapy and counseling in the world won’t change what the U.N. believes and that study after study has shown — that isolation is inherently psychologically damaging. Given that, it would be easy to believe that both Sperry’s campaign to keep architects from designing isolation cells and the solutions included in the California bill for which Abrams testified are half measures at best. But perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. At the very least, they’ve started an important conversation worthy of a national debate.
A measure restricting access to juvenile records passed the Washington state Legislature Wednesday,
As JJIE reported March 6, the bill, HB 1651, restricts access to all juvenile records except the worst felony offenses, such as violent crimes and sexual assaults.
Prior to passage of the law juvenile records could only be sealed after a lengthy and complicated process. However, even if the court sealed the records, private consumer reporting companies could still purchase state data files that included information from juvenile records.
A federal judge on Tuesday ordered that the 350 Michigan prisoners serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles should be given a chance at parole. The ruling comes nearly a year and half after the landmark June 2012 Supreme Court decision that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.
Yesterday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge John O’Meara gives Michigan until Jan 31, 2014, a little more than two months, to decide on a plan for giving the state’s juvenile lifers a "fair, meaningful and realistic" opportunity for parole.
Children’s advocates welcomed the ruling, but Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said parole hearings would only hurt the families of the victims.
“In every case where a juvenile is sentenced to life in prison, a victim was already sentenced to death — forever,” Schuette said through a spokesperson. The ruling, he added, would “re-victimizing these families through unnecessary hearings.”
The Illinois Youth Center - Kewanee, one of six juvenile detention facilities in the state, has since at least 2000 housed male youth with the greatest mental health needs. But the Kewanee facility has experienced difficulties for that entire time in finding adequate staff, in part due to its remote location, about two hours west of Chicago and away from major universities.
A September 2012 report from the John Howard Association, a watchdog group, found only eight of 17 authorized mental health positions were filled, and youth on average received only about 30 minutes of treatment per week. Also last September, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit alleging the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) did not provide “minimally adequate” mental health or education services, subjected youth to excessive amounts of solitary confinement, failed to protect youth from one another and held them beyond their release date due to a lack of adequate community placements.
The DJJ and ACLU entered into a consent decree in December to settle the lawsuit. Then, in March, the DJJ reduced special treatment units from 90 beds to 54 at Kewanee, and moved less acute, more long-term mental health cases to a facility in St. Charles, Ill., on the outskirts of the Chicago metropolitan area.
DJJ Director Arthur Bishop said DJJ had been moving forward on improving staffing ratios and treatment amounts even before entering into the consent decree, although he acknowledges that the Kewanee facility has faced challenges. “Staffing has been a chronic problem in that community … even despite tremendous recruitment and marketing efforts,” he said. “That is not just limited to the treatment units — it’s psychologists, it’s social workers.”
Among those impacted by the difficulty in providing care has been 14-year-old Jaime (his name has been changed for this article), whose mother, Celia, says her son has been held there for a year and — despite multiple prior mental health diagnoses — has yet to be comprehensively assessed. He receives individualized counseling just 30 minutes per week (Read more about Jaime’s story HERE)
The department cannot speak publicly about individual cases, Bishop said, but when asked whether youths are ever held for that long without assessment, he responds: “I would wholeheartedly say, ‘No.’ ” Jennifer Jaworski, chief of mental health services, said youth receive “comprehensive, evidence-based” screening and assessment within their first two weeks in DJJ, starting with the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument (MAYSI).
“Special treatment youth would not be at Kewanee unless they had been assessed to go there,” she said. The 30 minutes of individualized counseling sounds accurate, she said, although that’s supplemented with several hours of group therapy.
The next steps under the consent decree will come next month, when the Illinois DJJ will hear suggestions on how to improve services within its facilities from a number of experts, including a mental health team led by Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychology at Rush University Medical Center. Those reports are scheduled to be released Sept. 9 and discussed during a court “status meeting” on Sept. 16.
“The experts have been investing a great deal of time and energy investigating services at DJJ facilities, visiting facilities, talking with executives, interviewing staff, reviewing documents, interviewing youth. And now they are writing their report,” said Adam Schwartz, lead counsel for the ACLU, adding that he is “not at liberty to describe” until after Sept. 9 what the experts were finding.
Questions of Due Process
Responding to Celia's claims, retired Chief Circuit Court Judge George Timberlake, who leads the Illinois Commission on Juvenile Justice, said a youth being held for a year without an assessment would be “an outlier” as far as he knows. “I can’t testify first-hand,” he said, but “if that’s typical, that’s shocking.”
Having said that, Timberlake adds that, although DJJ has moved forward in implementing mental health screening and assessment tools, “The mental health response is inadequate because of the difficulty of hiring mental health professionals. They continue to have difficulty hiring staff at Kewanee. They’ve hired some, but not enough.”
Betsy Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, said she visited St. Charles recently, and youth in custody were receiving “three hours a day, a few days a week” in school, and she would be surprised to hear that a youth like Jaime receives even 30 minutes per week of counseling.
“One of my staff was just in Kewanee and said it’s absolutely inadequate,” Clarke said. “There are still concerns about harsh discipline tactics — forget the sexual victimization — the use of solitary confinement and so forth. You’ve got kids with not enough to do. You’ve got staff not equipped to provide programming … And you’ve got kids who would be better off not being there, but in the community with wraparound programming.”
But, Clarke said, “there’s no due process” when it comes to how long youth should be held. “The director [Bishop] never talks about it in terms of, ‘as short a time as possible,’ ” she said. “He talks about it in terms of completing a treatment plan. Well, there’s no treatment. There’s not even education.”
DJJ says it’s been moving forward on those issues, pointing to the reduction of 36 special treatment beds in Kewanee as a start. The shift of those chronic mental health cases to the St. Charles facility has not increased the overall population there — there are still 48 beds — because of the lower overall caseload throughout DJJ, Jaworski said.
The staffing ratios for juveniles classified as needing mental health or substance abuse treatment are one staff per six youth; while the ratios for those needing acute special treatment have fallen from 1:18 to 1:9 and for sex offenders from 1:24 down to 1:18.
“Those are right in line with what best practices would say are appropriate,” Jaworski said. Although a net of “one or two” staff have been hired, she said, most of the improvement in ratios has come from reducing the special treatment population.
Special treatment youth receive four to five hours of group therapy per week, up from two hours prior to recent reforms, as well as 30 minutes of individual therapy, Jaworski said. Juvenile sex offenders receive three to four hours of group therapy per week, up from 30 minutes previously.
Bishop says the department’s average stay is between six and nine months and that due process consist of individualized youth development plans—not “one size fits all”—that “effectively prepare them for discharge and re-entry into their community. We’re focusing on individualized plans based not on dysfunction but on the strength and assets of the youth.”
Maki said he’s noted the movement of youth out of Kewanee and into St. Charles, where presumably it could be easier to attract needed mental health professionals given its proximity to a major metropolitan area. “Based on our work, mental health continues to be a real challenge for the Department of Juvenile Justice,” Maki said. After closures of two facilities, in Joliet and in Murphysboro, “What the DJJ is working on right now is, ‘How do you use the facilities you have to treat the population you have?’ ”
The overall increase in population at Kewanee has come largely from youth who had been housed in the now-closed facility in Joliet, which has made the dynamic more complex, he said.
“Many of the kids who were at Joliet were the most difficult kids,” he said. “Now, they’re further away from their families … Kewanee is going to require special attention going forward. I don’t think the long-term answer is to have one facility deal with all the most difficult kids, especially one that has historically struggled with resources.”
DJJ only has so much control over the larger picture, Maki emphasized. “They get who gets sent to them,” he said. “With the erosion of community health treatment, often from a lack of funding, you’re seeing the most difficult kids still getting sent to DJJ. Arguably, they belong in a mental health setting.”
Bottom line, DJJ took significant steps forward in closing the Joliet and Murphysboro facilities and “right-sizing the system,” Maki said. “Now the second part begins. Let’s see. I think it will be awhile before we know what’s working and what’s not working.”
Schwartz said the ACLU was “100 percent supportive of the closures,” but he isn’t entirely sure where all the youth housed in Joliet and Murphysboro ended up. The Kewanee facility is divided into two sets of buildings, so that “by design, it’s capable of having two sets of kids who never really see each other that much.”
But there are now three different populations in Kewanee. In addition to the special treatment population of 54, DJJ records show that Kewanee currently houses 84 juvenile sex offenders and 121 maximum security offenders; the latter group are housed on one side of the facility, separate from the rest.
Although the special treatment and sex offender populations are on the same side of the facility, DJJ says they only mix during meals, and then only briefly when one population is being escorted in while the other is escorted out.
Federal Sexual Abuse Report
Heaped onto DJJ’s plate in the coming months and years is the issue of sexual abuse in youth prisons. While nothing new, the subject has taken on new urgency since the release in June of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report naming Illinois among four states, along with Georgia, Ohio and South Carolina, that reported the highest rates of victimization in juvenile facilities in 2012.
Nationwide, an estimated 9.5 percent of adjudicated youth reported such incidents, but in Illinois, the figure topped 15 percent in the survey, conducted in 273 state-owned or -operated juvenile facilities and 53 locally- or privately-operated facilities with state contracts. The survey is required under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Timberlake isn’t at all surprised by the notion that some amount of sexual abuse would be taking place in a correctional facility. “But it was genuinely shocking, the number, percentage and rate,” he said. “They [DJJ] were shocked also. Should they have been? I don’t know.”
Clarke sees the need for an inspector general or ombudsperson who would be completely independent of DJJ, have 24-7 access to facilities and be able to make systemic recommendations to the Legislature. “It’s a concern since there’s been so much effort since 2006 to turn these into more therapeutic and less correctional facilities,” she said.
Maki said his organization was “shocked” at the findings when they first came out, given that they regularly monitor DJJ, talk with staff, youth and families, and “we had never heard stories like this before.” He added: “We were trying to figure out why we didn’t know this. DJJ felt the same way.”
“It’s very concerning,” Bishop said of the federal report. “Any level of abuse, whether sexual abuse or physical abuse is concerning.” He said the department certainly has discharged staff for such abuses, and he believes the “rightsizing” of the department that Maki references will help to shine a spotlight on them going into the future.
DJJ is working with the state Department of Children and Family Services to jointly implement a 24-hour hotline for youth who are victimized, and the department is also thinking about establishing an ombudsman, as Clarke suggested, who would operate independent of the department but on site, to monitor the situation.
The department in August brought in former FBI special agent Kathleen McChesney, now a Los Angeles-based management consultant, to analyze and assess the department’s policies and practices. McChesney and other experts are interviewing staff, youth and other stakeholders to figure out why the DOJ report cited higher figures than facilities themselves had been reporting.
“We’ve alerted and educated and orientated the youth who are in place here,” Bishop said. “We’re collaborating with the John Howard Association—they’re a watchdog group, that’s not a usual arrangement—but we’re working with them so they can assist in educating and orientating the youth, and also parents, around the use of the hotline, and also giving them another opportunity to have a voice.”
The federal report underscores the need — already recognized separately due to the difficulties caring for those who need mental health — to reduce population in juvenile detention facilities and make them more youth-focused and treatment-focused rather than punitive, Maki said.
“This is the future of juvenile justice reform,” he said. “How do you become less reliant on incarceration? Secondly, if you use residential facilities to hold youth, how do you uphold the fundamental tenet that you should treat youth differently from adults and return them safely to their communities?”
“We don’t want the DJJ to be a de facto treatment program,” Bishop said. “Local county judges may send youth to us because we have programs, but we don’t want that. And judges are moving away from that now. If you look at the admission of youth who come to us, they come with a tremendous lack in all of those areas—education, health care, mental health services. In many cases they’re getting better care in our facilities. Although we’re not satisfied with where we are.”
HARRISBURG, Ill. – Jaime was jumped by seven boys the very day he set foot in Illinois Youth Center – Kewanee one year ago. He was later raped in the shower, and is hounded daily by guards who call him a “punk-ass nigger bitch,” according to his mother, Celia.
Jaime (his name has been changed for this article) wants to call his mother more than once a month for five minutes, and he wants to go home to see his grandmother before she dies, Celia says. But both requests have been denied, she says, and he recently resorted to breaking a window and eating glass in order to kill himself.
At 14, Jaime is the youngest inmate at Kewanee. A two-hour drive from Chicago, the facility has historically housed juveniles needing mental health treatment. The facility is, however, undergoing a change in mission. State officials deny these had anything to do with legal pressure, but the changes have been implemented since a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice that resulted in a binding consent decree. (Read more about the lawsuit and Kewanee's troubles HERE)
Jaime’s mother says he is serving an indefinite amount of time for punching a boy in the nose. By “indefinite,” the judge on his case meant that release is contingent upon how soon he can learn to suppress his anger management issues and behave.
But due to his mental health issues, Celia says, Jaime lacks the self-control to hold back when he feels threatened either by other inmates or prison staff. When someone picks a fight with him, he blacks out and reacts like a “cornered dog,” racking up fresh battery charges with every incident that prevent his release.
Jaime has spent a year locked up at Kewanee, and although he was originally sent 300 miles away from his home here to receive treatment for his bipolar disease, oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, he has yet to be assessed by the prison, his mother says.
Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice representatives, however, say all inmates receive psychological screening on the day of their arrival, before they’re assigned to their rooms. Over the following two weeks, youth are diagnosed for any mental health conditions and assessed for self-injurious behavior.
Back home in Harrisburg, not far from the Kentucky border, Celia and her mother, Kathy Hammons, live in a one-bedroom apartment infested with cockroaches and worms, where mice scratch nightly from inside the walls. Photos of Jaime are tacked up all around the den next to sofas where Celia sat pouring over a file bursting with her son’s court documents and mental health evaluations, wondering if she had missed something that could bring him home.
Among the documents is a social investigation report filed by the Saline County Circuit Court in August 2012. Physically, it was noted that Jaime had required stitches to his head three times as the result of accidents that occurred while he was in his father’s care, and although he had contracted lead poisoning during the same time, he never received treatment. A mental health summary included in the package details Jaime’s treatment at the Egyptian Health Department in Eldorado, Ill. prior to his incarceration. EHD reported that he had been psychiatrically hospitalized on three occasions and recommended for individual and family therapy. He was prescribed Depakote, Prozac, Rispirdol, Seroquel and Adderall.
Celia speaks quietly due to her untreated asthma. She speaks in a resigned monotone, her voice rising in anger only when she recounts her frequent pleading with prison staff at Kewanee to allow Jaime to call her. He can’t, it had been explained to her, because phoning home is a reward and inmates don’t get rewarded for making suicidal calls for attention.
“He’s gonna kill himself, or I’m gonna kill myself. He’s there, and I’m not doing nothing for him,” Celia said. “It is a known medical fact, the number one building block to a child’s mind is, what? His own community and his own family. Why the hell is he so far away?”
Celia, who says she discovered her son’s various attempts to hang, beat and cut himself only when she called Kewanee to check up on him, wants the Department of Juvenile Justice to recognize the impact of adverse early childhood experiences on Jaime.
DJJ representatives declined to comment on individual cases, but maintained that officials are making proactive efforts to bring families into the decision-making process regarding inmates’ mental health treatment.
Director Arthur Bishop says the department “can’t prevent [suicide] attempts, but the successfulness of these attempts,” which includes eliminating risk objects and in cells and also gathering relevant information from parents about their child’s mental welfare.
“[We] hope to give the caregivers or the parents a comfort level where they can share that, have some dialogue as to whether [suicide attempts] are legitimate,” he says. “Any time you have congregant care, … youth attempt these things, whether it’s acting out or whether it’s to garner attention.”
Jennifer Jaworski, chief of mental health services, added that if Jaime is telling his mother that he is uncomfortable or shy in group therapy, he can instead request to see an individual therapist at any time. “I know our staff try to accommodate them,” she says.
According to Celia, Jaime, at 8 years old, watched as a group of masked gunmen entered the room where he lay on the couch with his head in his uncle’s lap. The men pumped 17 rounds into the uncle, and they would have killed Jaime too if he had seen their faces, emergency responders said at the time, Celia says. Jaime was rushed to the hospital that night drenched in blood.
After Celia fought for and won full custody of her son, she immediately enrolled him in a behavioral school in nearby Eldorado, but in certain ways the damage seemed permanent. Jaime exhibited a deep distrust of strangers and bristled with defensive rage whenever he felt threatened. He played only with small children and seemed stuck with the mindset of an 8-year-old despite having already crowned six feet in height by age 14, she says.
He was one of few black children in Eldorado, and his minority status as well as his mental illnesses occasionally marked him as a target for harassment. But he was big, and potentially dangerous when he inevitably chose to retaliate rather than take a beating.
Celia is convinced that because she’s his mother, she knows what Jaime needs. A call to her a week. A visit from someone who cares. Guards who will protect him when he gets jumped and do something about it when he gets raped. More one-on-one counseling appointments because she knows he won’t speak up in group sessions.
But without a car of her own, Celia needs to spend $500 per trip to Kewanee on gas, a driver, lodging and snacks for Jaime. It’s more than she has left after she pays $400 out of Hammons’ monthly $700 Social Security check for rent on the apartment, and it’s never certain if Jaime will be eligible for a visit or if he will be locked up in solitary confinement when she arrives.
In a plea for funds to visit her son, Celia reached out to prison watchdog group John Howard Association, which referred her to Chicago anti-rape activist Mariame Kaba of Project NIA, which regularly helps transport families with incarcerated daughters to IYC-Warrenville. Kaba promoted Celia’s story to online supporters who made donations in excess of $400.
Kaba says after she started partnering with Warrenville to foster connections between inmates and families after she called several facilities to ask how often kids received visits and discovered the answer was often “never.”
“The system should do whatever they possibly can to keep kids closer to home. They have to figure out a way to build partnerships in communities. I don’t see why they can’t rely on various church groups, families all over the state,” she says. “DJJ says they’re doing a proactive job, when they all say, when you ask them, that kids hardly ever get visits. Why aren’t they asking why? They can do better. They should do better on behalf of those kids.”
As for Celia’s complaints about the quality of her son’s mental health treatment, she says officials at Kewanee reminded her that she is a mother, not a doctor, and she says they have told her that Jaime is currently receiving the best medical attention possible at IYC - Kewanee.
“They don’t see the same patterns as I do. I go to sleep, and I can picture him curled up in a ball crying for me. And this is the worst feeling a parent could ever feel,” Celia said.
She can rattle off the names of reoffending wife-beaters, meth cooks and drunk drivers in Harrisburg who she says have been in and out of jail faster than her son. Celia knows Jaime doesn’t understand when he sees kids incarcerated for more serious crimes than battery on his end walk out of prison when he has to stay.
“I think the justice system is so backwards sometimes,” she said. “You’re freeing the man who’s making the kids the way they are. My baby did something as a juvenile, he can’t get a second chance.”
Michael Brandon Hill got so upset when his family took in a boarder that he set the house on fire.
Later, when other youths at a psychiatric facility teased him, Hill lashed out with such ferocity that it took four or five counselors to restrain him.
Last New Year’s Eve, Hill’s anger and hostility erupted on Facebook. In a post that would lead to criminal charges, Hill threatened to shoot his brother in the head “and not think twice about it.”
A day after the police said Hill carried an assault rifle and 498 rounds of ammunition into a DeKalb County elementary school and fired on approaching officers, a portrait emerged of a troubled young man with a history of violent outbursts, trouble with the law, and mental illness that received, at best, sporadic treatment.
Hill, 20, is being held without bond on numerous charges stemming from the incident Tuesday at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy. The episode capped a chaotic period in Hill’s life, acquaintances said Wednesday, and may have been averted if he had not stopped taking medication for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“He hasn’t been on his meds for quite a while,” said Natasha Knotts, of Lithonia, whose family informally adopted Hill a few years ago. “He talked about hearing voices talk to him. He just couldn’t fight it anymore.”
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“I never thought he would hurt anyone, including himself.”[/module]But Knotts, 40, who calls Hill “my son,” said nothing had hinted at an attack that, if not interrupted, might have rivaled the scope of the nation’s deadliest school shootings. Instead, no one was injured.
“In the time that I knew Mike, he never seemed to have any kind of violent tendencies,” Knotts said last Wednesday. “I never thought he would hurt anyone, including himself.”
Hill, though, grew up amid violence and dysfunction, said one of his two older brothers, Tim.
Their mother was twice convicted for burglary, in 2006 and 2009, and was serving five years’ probation when she died in 2010, according to court records in Henry County. Their father, Tim Hill said, had long been out of the picture.
Tim Hill said he realized that his brother – whom he calls by his middle name – had a dangerous side in June 2009, when Brandon got into an argument with a woman who was boarding in his family’s house.
“His revenge was to go up to the attic and set her stuff on fire,” Tim Hill said. “When he was raging, he said he wished me and my older brother had died in the fire.”
The younger boy was 16 at the time.
Tim Hill said his brother spiraled out of control as a young teen. At first, he shoplifted from Dollar Stores and CVS drug stores, then began burglarizing churches. Authorities sent the boy to juvenile detention facilities several times, Tim Hill said, where he would take psychiatric medications that stabilized his moods. Upon release, he drifted off the medications, and on a few occasions attempted suicide by cutting his wrists.
“After he started the house on fire,” Tim Hill said, “my stepdad asked the district attorney whether it was going to take him killing someone before they got him the help he needed.”
Michael Hill wound up at Youth Villages, a juvenile justice and psychiatric treatment facility in Douglas County.
Hill followed rules and behaved well as long as he stayed on his medication, said Jamie Stephenson, a former Youth Villages counselor who worked with the boy. But when he sometimes refused the daily pills, Stephenson said, Hill became “intimidating and violent.”
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“He seemed like a good kid. He just seemed like he had a rough past.”[/module]Other residents stoked Hill’s rage, Stephenson said, by teasing him about his missing teeth or his intellectual limits. At times, Stephenson said, four or five staff members had to pull Hill out of fights.
And yet, Stephenson said, Hill could charm other residents and counselors, and he made it known he would be happy to remain at the facility, even at an age when most residents are moving toward independent living.
“I feel kind of sorry for him,” Stephenson said. “He seemed like a good kid. He just seemed like he had a rough past.”
It is unclear when Hill left Youth Villages.
Hill lived in a group home for a time before showing up in his late teens at the Prophetical Word Church in Decatur, said Knotts, an assistant pastor. Hill shared virtually nothing about past troubles, Knotts said, but she invited him to stay with her family, anyway.
“He wasn’t in contact with his family at all,” Knotts said. “That’s the reason we took him in without questions – he didn’t have anyone to look after him.”
Now she considers him her adopted son.
“I spoiled him,” Knotts said, by washing his clothes, making his bed, cooking his meals, making sure he took baths. “He was very spoiled.”
Hill often kept to himself, Knotts said, and didn’t like discussing his mental health problems, especially with people outside her family. He stayed on his medications until he lost Medicaid benefits and could not afford the prescriptions, she said. Knotts could not identify the medications.
Early this year, Hill decided he wanted to live in a place of his own, even though he did not have a job. With help from Knotts’ church, he rented a one-bedroom townhouse at the Kingstown Apartments near Decatur.
“He seemed like he was a little slow, just talking to him,” said Brenda Gresham, the property manager. “But he seemed like a very nice person. I never had a problem with him.”
In early April, however, a fire broke out in the downstairs living room of Hill’s townhouse. Hill, trapped upstairs for a time, suffered smoke inhalation and had to be rescued by firefighters. Authorities never determined the cause of the fire, Gresham said.
Hill spent weeks at Grady Memorial Hospital, Knotts said, then came back to her home to recuperate.
“He was on his meds then,” she said. “He was stable, he was happy. He was Mike.”
Soon he approached other church members about moving into their home – a house just a short walk from McNair elementary.
At the time, he was facing a criminal charge in Henry County for allegedly threatening on Facebook to kill his brother. He avoided jail time by pleading guilty in July to a charge of making a terroristic threat. A judge placed Hill on probation for three years and ordered him to attend anger management classes. Court records do not indicate whether he attended the classes.
During the past month, Knotts said, she sensed from Hill’s text messages and from their telephone conversations that his mental state was slipping.
But “his demeanor hadn’t changed,” she said. “There weren’t any telltale signs.”
Knotts said she never knew Hill to own guns or even to talk about weapons.
Indeed, how Hill, a convicted felon with mental illness, ended up with an assault rifle and a cache of ammunition remains a mystery. DeKalb County police said Wednesday he may have “obtained” the rifle from the home of an acquaintance.
Hill’s attempted assault on the school left Knotts baffled. She had hoped to talk with him Wednesday, but he was being held in isolation in the DeKalb County jail and was not allowed to receive visitors.
She wants to get a message to a young man who was so troubled, but so reticent about asking for help: “That I love him and I will always love him, that I’m still here for him, and he’s not alone.”