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D.C.'s Prison Reform Holds Clues for Illinois
June 15, 2010
By Robert Wildeboer
For the last several months, WBEZ has been bringing you stories describing how the juvenile justice system in Illinois has been failing in its mission to rehabilitate troubled young people.
The stories are part of our series Inside and Out.
As part of the series, we've been asking: Is it even possible to create a prison that helps kids turn their lives around?
Today and tomorrow, WBEZ’s Robert Wildeboer takes us to a youth prison in Washington D.C that operates on principles Illinois has on paper, but not in practice.
A note, we’re using pseudonyms to protect the identities of the juvenile offenders in this story.
In reporting for this series I had heard lots about something called “The Missouri model” and I understood the concept but I didn’t really get it until I saw it for myself.
As you might expect, the Missouri model was developed in Missouri and the basic idea is to give kids who have committed crimes treatment in small group home like settings where they live dorm style as opposed to separately in cells.
It’s become a model because they’re successful.
Less than 10 percent of the kids released from Missouri prisons end up back in jail.
Here in Illinois that number is 50 percent -- half the kids wind up back in prison – an expensive cycle for taxpayers and a waste of kids’ potential.
Six years ago Washington D.C.’s recidivism rate was around 50 percent too but they’ve cut that almost in half.
On a Tuesday morning, the charter school in the prison lively.
In the woodshop, loud music gives the room a party feel.
At the back of the room, Bryan is working on a table.
He’s spreading putty on the top to smooth out the wood.
BRYAN: You could use it for a woodshop, but I’m using it, you know, I made it as a desk so you can sit down and do, put a computer or something on it, you know.
Bryan says he’s planning to go to college.
For kids in Illinois’ youth prisons, college isn’t even on the radar, at least I’ve never heard any of them talk about it.
I have heard plenty of them talk about wanting to get their GED or high school diploma but then I’ve also watched some of those same kids walk out of prison without any support or direction and end up on the same corner where they were arrested before.
But Bryan, he’s not just talking about college, he’s actually taking some real steps.
He’s scheduled to take the SAT in a month and he’s already submitted applications.
BRYAN: Well I applied to VCU, South Carolina State University, Claflin University, Elizabeth City State University, Clark Atlanta University.
Bryan says he’s smart, he’s just made some bad choices .
He says the prison system is going to pay for him to go to college, something he’s always wanted to do, so he’s going to take advantage of the opportunity.
Last year, out of the nine hundred and 20 kids under the care of the Washington D.C. juvenile prison system, 16 were in college.
At the front of the shop, another young man, Perry is working on a chair made of two by fours.
PERRY: Nice lawn chair to sit out back for the summertime. Relax with a foot rest, put your foot up you know. Just lay back, enjoy the weather.
Like the other young men Perry is clearly enjoying himself, listening to the music, lost in the work.
He’s says since being at the New Beginnings prison, he’s discovered new talents and realized he’s smart.
PERRY: Been a good experience cause the support that I’m getting at New Beginnings, I wasn’t getting out there. It’s a shame that you got to get incarcerated to find yourself.
BARINHOLTZ: My name is Matt Barinholtz and I’m the director of career institutes but really what I do is work in the shop.
Barinholtz says two of the boys in class were always hanging out together and not working on their individual projects so he paired them up and told them to find a picture of a piece of furniture they’d like to build together.
BARINHOLTZ: They decided to make, of all things, this weird corner desk unit out of an office supply catalogue. I mean it was really bland and boring but it had angles.
Barinholtz says the angles interested the boys and now they’re both focused on the project.
He says the kids respond well when they’re allowed to decide what they’re going to make.
A few doors down, in Ms. Brittany’s English class, kids are watching a movie on the holocaust with old footage and grainy black and white photos of death camps, and bombed out cities, and people being loaded like cattle onto train cars.
And parts of the movie have subtitles.
One kids nods off, but most are paying attention.
16-year-old Nate has picked up a pretty valuable skill in this class.
NATE – When I first came in here I didn’t know how to read.
Nate says he was way behind on his reading level but they practice reading silently for 15 minutes of every class.
NATE: I ain’t never pick up a book out there now I’m picking up books with 7 to 12 chapters, 21 chapters and reading it now by myself. So, I’m glad of that because I never knew, reading take you a long way. When you go on job interviews and all that. Now I know I can do it on my own, sign an application on my own, go on an interview on my own.
In the art room on this day the kids are going to make collages.
But before getting started, a young man goes up to the smart board at the front of the classroom, it’s dry erase board the size of a chalk board and it’s also like a touch sensitive computer screen.
He opens up Windows media player and picks some tunes to play during class.
Then he does a google image search to print off a picture for his collage.
I am reminded of the computer lab at St. Charles in Illinois which has been locked for a year and a half because the computers don’t work and no one’s fixed them because there’s no computer teacher anyway.
The art teacher, Ms. Ama, hands out supplies and this is another one of those moments that reminds me I’m not in an Illinois youth prison.
MS. AMA: Alright there’s four pairs of scissors out total, big pairs, so you’re going to have to share em.
So she’s handing out big scissors, and this is the maximum security prison.
Won’t the kids stab each other?
To prevent just that sort of thing, many teachers in Illinois prison classrooms won’t even pass out pencils unless a kid hands in an I.D. as collateral.
So how can the DC prison do stuff that defies the conventional wisdom about how you run a prison.
ROBINSON: This traditional correctional approach of warehousing kids, it has not worked, it doesn’t work anywhere in the U.S. It doesn’t work anywhere, there’s no prison in the U.S. that says we’ve locked these kids up for three years, we let them out and our recidivism rates are 10 percent because of that. There’s nowhere, that place does not exist! So why do we do it? And I just don’t know why we do it. It doesn’t work and we do it.
Pili Robinson used to run the maximum security prison in Missouri that houses kids convicted of robbery, rape, and murder, serious cases.
Missouri’s success in rehabilitating those kids has made it a model and Robinson is part of the team replicating the Missouri model in Washington DC.
But the model is pretty radical.
It requires a completely different mindset, a paradigm shift in the way we think about corrections.
For example, two kids have committed suicide in Illinois youth prisons in the last couple years,
The department of Juvenile Justice is investing in suicide proof furniture so kids can’t hurt themselves.
You can’t hang anything off the molded plastic beds and shelves because they have rounded corners.
That seems like a pretty good idea, right?
Robinson doesn’t think so.
He says it’s lazy.
ROBINSON: What you find in traditional prisons is they build everything around the building keeping people safe so that staff can sit somewhere, at a desk, while the jail runs itself.
Robinson says in D.C. it’s the staff who are responsible for keeping kids safe.
The idea is they’re talking to kids and engaging them and when they’re doing that, they’re going to know if a kid is having suicidal thoughts and then they can come up with a plan to deal with that.
ROBINSON: At those prisons that’s buying all that furniture, they probably have stations where staff sit at. They probably have places that staff patrol and because they set up their jail up like that they may need a physical environment to support what they’re doing because they’re saying we’re not going to engage kids, we’re going to supervise kids. We going to monitor kids. We’re going to be guards.
D.C. has a brand new facility that Robinson says has been key to their efforts to do corrections in a new way.