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Ill. to improve youth prison conditions

SPRINGFIELD – The state of Illinois has agreed to improve conditions at youth prisons under a settlement that officials hope will avert a legal battle if a judge agrees to the deal.

The settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois doesn’t spell out exactly what would be done to correct problems such as violence, limited educational opportunities and inadequate mental health care.

Instead, it proposes that independent investigators review procedures and present a plan within six months.

Also under the proposal, the Department of Juvenile Justice would change its practice of throwing children into solitary confinement for long periods and keeping inmates behind bars after they’re supposed to be released because the state has nowhere to send them.

The ACLU plans to submit the proposed settlement today at the same time it files a federal class-action. A judge would then review the deal and decide whether to accept it.

Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel for the Illinois ACLU, called the agreement “a starting point” in ensuring that youth prisons provide proper care.

Meanwhile, Arthur Bishop, director of the Juvenile Justice Department, said it is “another brick in the foundation” of a new system to help youths instead of simply warehousing them.

The department houses about 1,000 children and teenagers. Nearly 70 percent of them are nonviolent offenders or former prisoners who were sent back for technical violations of their parole, according to the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group.

The association and other independent groups say the youths often can’t get a decent education.

Classes are often canceled because teachers aren’t available, the John Howard Association reports, and the agency went a full year without an administrator to oversee schooling. Special education is limited, although the ACLU says nearly half the inmates need it.

Mental health is a similar story. About two-thirds of youths at state facilities face some kind of mental illness, but the Department of Juvenile Justice lacks staff to treat them. For instance, services at the Kewanee prison, which focuses on youths with mental problems, were cut by 75 percent last year, the John Howard Association found.

The Chicago Tribune reported in 2010 that the state’s juvenile correctional facilities had seen seven suicides in the past decade and 175 serious suicide attempts.

The ACLU lawsuit alleges that violence among inmates is a frequent problem, as is abuse by the staff. It does not provide any examples or statistics to support that, and Schwartz said he didn’t have any figures available.

However, the John Howard Association reports that staff members have told them they will turn their back on misconduct by other staffers to avoid being a possible witness. And they claim they might face retaliation if they report misconduct.

Watchdog groups criticize the department’s practice of putting inmates in “confinement” – which means solitary confinement without any activities, including classroom work – for non-violent offenses. The ACLU lawsuit says youths can be kept in confinement for weeks or, at one facility, up to three months.

The average time in confinement last year was 2.4 days, down from 8.8 days in 2006, according to the John Howard Association. But confinement was being handed out as a punishment just as often, even though the department now handles fewer people.

Another problem is that state government’s lack of money and employees makes it hard to arrange places for juveniles to go once they are released. As a result, they end up being kept in youth prisons longer than they should be.

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