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Reports: Bad conditions linger at youth homes

Published: Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013 11:49 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – A year after Illinois was sued and reached a settlement over inadequate conditions in its juvenile detention centers, two new reports have documented a number of conditions that show the situation is not improving.

In a report ordered by a federal court, a panel of juvenile justice and adolescent psychiatric experts detailed their eight-month investigation of the state’s six juvenile detention centers.

The group found incarcerated teens mowing lawns during the school day, being improperly medicated and routinely subjected to more solitary confinement than necessary. It also found several were being kept at prison facilities after release dates because state officials could not find them outside housing.

A second report by the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, found that conditions at a specialized mental health facility in Kewanee have been complicated by an influx of maximum-security inmates following the closure of another facility in Joliet.

The Joliet Youth Center closed in February as part of Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to shutter several Illinois prisons and other facilities to save money. The report says Kewanee is a facility with “extremely limited resources” to deal with its population of juvenile sex offenders and youths with acute mental illness.

John Maki, the association’s executive director, said Kewanee housed just 12 inmates in 2012 who were re-incarcerated parole violators. During a July visit, the John Howard team found the number had jumped to more than 100. Maki said the facility was already short staffed before more inmates were added.

The facility also has not hired enough staff to deliver adequate mental health treatment, Maki said. While the state has budgeted for 17 mental health professionals, only 10 were on hand in July.

“The closures were the absolute right thing to do, but we’re really facing the second part of that challenge,” Maki said. “The real hard work begins of reallocating resources.”

Quinn said he hadn’t seen the report released Thursday, but any issues raised would be addressed.

He said the state now incarcerates fewer young people.

“We’ve made very important strides in juvenile justice in Illinois,” he told reporters after an unrelated event in Chicago. “We want to have a model of juvenile justice that works with good outcomes, where young people who make a mistake, pay their debt, have a consequence for bad behavior. ... We don’t just want to throw them into an adult prison.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, whose 2012 court case against the state prompted a court settlement mandating the review of conditions, says it isn’t surprised with the court-ordered review’s findings. Submitted in U.S. Northern District Court Monday as part of the settlement, the reports examined conditions at facilities in Kewanee, St. Charles, Warrenville, Chicago, Harrisburg and Pere Marquette.

“What it confirms is that youths are not getting adequate education and mental health services,” ACLU attorney Ruth Brown said. “They’re being confined after they’re ready for release only because IDJJ has not found them a bed in the community.”

The ACLU proposed the settlement last fall at the same time it filed a federal class-action lawsuit. The department settled, and a judge in a consent decree set up a timeline by which specific actions should be taken.

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice now has two months to draft a plan to address the problems outlined in the reports.

“The Department of Juvenile Justice received the reports filed with the court and is reviewing them in detail and working with our counsel to take the next steps as set forth in the consent decree,” spokeswoman Jennifer Florent said.

The court-ordered report says youths aren’t receiving a full-time education program because of teaching vacancies and a lack of support staff. Students who had not yet received their high school diploma or GED were found mowing lawns or doing other institutional work during the school day.

Teachers are demoralized, and there is a frequent use of “punitive and ineffective responses to student behavior.” The six homes house more than 800 inmates between the ages of 13 and 20, and are operating “far below minimally accepted standards at comparable facilities across the country.”

Mental health services were also lacking due to staffing shortages. Experts found an insufficient number of mental health professionals, including the “absence of a child and adolescent psychiatrist anywhere in the IDJJ” as well as the failure of many mental health staff to hold necessary licenses.

Residents were sometimes improperly sent to solitary confinement for 22 hours a day, and procedures weren’t followed in administering medications.

While other reports by outside organizations have addressed conditions in the past, the expert report is the first Illinois court-ordered review of conditions, and some advocates said they were long overdue.

“For the very first time despite all of these years and years of complaints, we really have state officials opening up their facilities answering questions from experts and really cooperating and collaborating in terms identifying what are the real systemic problems,” ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka said.

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