Marcus* arrived here 39 days ago for a drug-related offense.
The 16-year-old boy lives in an 8-foot by 10-foot cell with the sparsest of furnishings—a decades-old bed, a small battery-powered radio, a few family photographs and some paperback books. Nothing more.
He wears brown khaki pants, a color-coded T-shirt and a bar-coded ID bracelet. He hates being confined to his cramped living unit. He misses not being able to mingle with girls his age. And he wishes he said no to drugs and guns.
But it’s too late for him. He’s stuck here waiting for a court hearing with a juvenile court judge to determine his fate, future and freedom. And he’s surrounded by 400 or so other kids in similar situations, each spending a part of their adolescence behind bars.
Welcome to the place you never want your child to be—the infamous Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. This massive facility on Chicago’s west side has been labeled one of the worst, if not the worst, juvenile detention center in the country.
Here, a revolving door of troubled, abused or gang-related juveniles, ages 10 to 18, await court appointments from behind barred windows, locked doors and limited parental visits.
Here, some bad-apple, thug-like correctional guards have been known to abuse teenage residents, physically, sexually and psychologically. And get away with it.
Here, desperate kids have been known to commit additional criminal acts simply to get waived to an adult court and, they hope, bailed out of the county jail. Otherwise, they could linger here for months, incarcerated behind bureaucratic red tape and social apathy.
To enter this antiquated facility, visitors must first walk through two metal detectors and various security checkpoints. Only then can parents and younger siblings check their belongings into lockers before visiting loved ones, if only for one-hour time blocks each day.
“It’s very hard to say everything I need to say and show my boy I love him in just one hour,” says Gloria Redding, a Chicago parent visiting her 17-year-old son here earlier this year. “All I can do is tell him I’m here for him and try to get him out of here as soon as possible.”
Most kids who wind up here are habitual offenders with multiple visits, some more than a dozen times. Many have mental health issues, criminal histories, abusive pasts, missing parents or have never seen a doctor in their lives.
Worse yet, the conditions here have been notoriously horrendous through the years: Graffiti on walls, dirty toilets, filthy living units, light fixtures covered with wet toilet paper, woeful mental health care and even a lack of clean underwear and bed sheets.
“It was the pits, plain and simple,” says Earl Dunlap, the center’s new court-appointed transitional administrator. “This was the most dysfunctional and dangerous juvenile detention facility I had ever seen in my 30 years in the field.”
Dunlap, a straight-shooter with a walk-tall attitude, hopped aboard this slowly sinking ship last August from the National Juvenile Detention Association, where he served as director. Since then, he’s been steering clear of prison-like icebergs for his teenage passengers.
Of the roughly 400 juveniles housed here on a daily basis, up to one fifth of them shouldn’t even be here, Dunlap admits. Many of them could be kept at home on electronic monitoring devices or other alternative correctional methods to save taxpayer dollars. But that process moves at a glacier’s pace through the Cook County courts where, at one time, up to 800 juveniles crammed into this five-floor, 50-bed Titanic.
These days, most kids are held here for only days, others for weeks, while waiting for court hearings. The average stay is about three weeks, but a few have been here for months, and at least one boy has been here for more than two years.
“That’s ridiculous,” Dunlap says in disgust. “This is a custodial facility, not a behavioral facility where they can get the proper long-term services they need.”
Youngsters and teenagers are brought here around the clock, seven days a week, first through an
orientation and intake process where they get screened, visit a nurse and receive an ID bracelet. Then they are sent to various floors and pods, depending on their age, case or situation.
On this day, six teenage boys wait to enter the center—and also enter “the system”—as a handful of other young residents return from in-house school classes within the facility. School here lasts from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. but the center also offers an “Achievement Academy” to help place kids who fall between the cracks of grade levels.
“Some kids have had very little or sporadic schooling in their lives,” says Ron Oldaker, who has served under every administration here the past 30 years. These days, under Dunlap, he serves as “quality of life administrator,” making sure kids have what they need on a daily basis.
During a tour of the center, two young teenage boys smile as they play chess. Other residents do homework, talk with friends or wait for medical, dental or counseling appointments. As opposed to the 1970s, when the center housed only one clinical psychologist, today there are 12.
“These kids have so many needs, ” Oldaker says, swiping an ID security card to use an elevator.
Two teenage boys, who can’t be named for confidentiality reasons, say they were placed here for drug offense charges while waiting to see a judge. One boy, who’s 15, has been here for two months. The other, who’s 16, also is here for battery against a police officer.
When asked the toughest part of being here, the 15-year-old replies, “being away from family for so long.” The 16-year-old replies, “being stuck in your room.”
When asked for any words of advice to kids not in the system, they echoed each other, replying, “stay in school and never start smoking weed,” and “stay in school and say no to drugs,” respectively.
With Dunlap at the helm, the center is finally beginning to chart a new course for kids like the two regretful boys.
In December, officials here tried an experiment. For two weeks, the staff did everything possible to keep the kids busy, using games, activities, tournaments and even point-based rewards for good behavior. During that two-week span, disciplinary violations plummeted.
“We kept ‘em so busy they were too tired to do much mischief,” Dunlap says, smiling. ce in America
Too many broken places
On any given day, about 60,000 kids are doing time in the nation’s 500 juvenile detention centers.
In the ideal, the centers help the juvenile’s physical, emotional and social development, including education, recreation, counseling, nutrition, visitation and continuous supervision. Above all, the mission is to provide a safe, humane environment, says Michael Jones, assistant executive director of the National Juvenile Detention Association.
Yet too many juvenile detention facilities have become “broken,” like the Cook County center, from Washington D.C. to Texas, he says.
And litigation and court-ordered change—which took place in Cook County—has become the rule, not the exception.
The new goal is to emphasize juvenile detention as a “process,” or a series of alternatives, from the least restrictive—such as intensive home supervision, electronic monitoring or staff-secure shelters—to the most secure, such as locked doors and barred windows, experts say.
Jones says the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating and monitoring conditions in several jurisdictions.
“Unfortunately the agency’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is doing little to provide leadership or the necessary funding to respond to a problem that has been escalating over the past five years,” he says.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has been keeping tabs on the Cook County center for years. It has already seen improvements under Earl Dunlap, the center’s new court-appointed transitional administrator.
“When Mr. Dunlap arrived at the JTDC a few months ago the facility had been in disarray for many years. Young residents couldn’t get adequate supplies of clean clothing and bedding. Allegations of abuse went unexamined. The discipline for every infraction by the young residents, including having contraband pencils or talking in the television rooms, was confinement to an 8-by-10 cell for 36 hours and sometimes longer,” says Sarah Schriber, at attorney with the ACLU of Illinois.
Now kids charged with infractions receive hearings and in some instances, have had their punishments overturned, she says. When staff members are accused of abuse, they are put into “no contact” positions until the allegations are investigated.
“We’re still weeding out the guards who have given our center a bad reputation,” Dunlap says.
“Those who deserve to get fired,” he notes in no uncertain terms, “will get fired. It’s a matter of when, not if.”
Big man, bigger mission
Dunlap cleaning up ‘an albatross’
Earl Dunlap leaned forward in his office chair, let out a deep sigh and revealed his true feelings about his workplace, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. He simply couldn’t help himself. He can’t pull punches, let alone his feelings.
“Quite frankly, this place should never have been built,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s an albatross.”
Yet here he is as its new court-appointed transitional administrator, hired to turn around the troubled and infamous facility. Last August, U.S. District Court Judge John Nordberg appointed and empowered Dunlap to resurrect this near-dead albatross.
Dunlap, a big man with a much bigger mission, is nationally recognized in the field of juvenile justice as someone who is able to do just that, by any means necessary.
For example, when he found out some of the juvenile detainees here didn’t have clean socks and underwear, he helped buy them from his own pocket. And when he discovered the center’s filthy conditions, he quickly hired a cleaning firm without union approval or a bidding process, a daring directive in Cook County.
“I don’t care,” he says, waving his hand in the air. “They can talk to the judge about it.”
Dunlap started in this field as a probation officer in 1968, making $6,800 a year. He’s seen it all, heard it all and wants nothing to do with the old ways here, such as patronage hiring, rampant neglect and abuse and the glaring lack of transparency to the public, to the media and, more importantly, to parents.
He also promises to weed out those correctional guards who are “wannabe cops” and who simply don’t belong here, even though he has received personal threats from some of them. By this time next year, he plans on increasing his staff of 400 to nearly 600.
“It doesn’t take a Philadelphia lawyer to figure out this place needs a makeover,” he says. “But it will take time, at least three to five years. We’re making progress here. It’s just slow-going progress.”
A U.S. Department of Justice report says there were more than 33 million youth under juvenile court jurisdiction in 2006, the latest figures available. And the number of delinquency cases processed by juvenile courts has increased by nearly 50 percent from 1985 to 2006.
More than 70 million Americans are younger than 18, and this age group has increased consistently since the mid-1980s and is projected to continue increasing until at least 2015, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Did you know?
The former name for the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center was named for Arthur Audy, a superintendent in the 1940s. In fact, the Arthur Audy Home for Children was commonly, if not meanly, used by Chicago area parents as a threat to their kids, warning them, “Watch it, Mister or we’ll put you in the Audy Home.”
kids are housed daily at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
*Not his real name
Jerry Davich is a Chicago area writer and dad.