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- A Day in St. Charles
- School at St. Charles
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- A Kid Diverted
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- D.C. Part 1
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- Rookies Face Reality
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New Hires Face Reality Inside Youth Prison
June 17, 2010
By Gabriel Spitzer
We’ve been talking about reforming Illinois’s juvenile justice system in our series, Inside and Out.
This week, we heard about how Washington, DC is working to turn around its juvenile prison.
Pili Robinson has been working with the DC system, and he told us by far the trickiest thing has been changing the culture of the staff.
ROBINSON: Let’s talk to kids, let’s find out issues, let’s find out what’s going on. The staff are like, well, hold up. I was hired to move ‘em to the school and let the teacher teach. I was hired to move ‘em to a therapist, and let the therapist do therapy. I was hired to move ‘em to the cafeteria and somebody fed ‘em some food. We’re trying to convert a 20-year correctional officer and turn ‘em into a youth counselor. And it’s proving to be very challenging.
Illinois has taken steps to change its own culture, beginning with those same frontline workers.
Gabriel met up with some of them again at the juvenile prison at St. Charles, to get a glimpse of how their training plays out in the real world.
The batch of new hires that started in February is kind of a test group.
They generally have more education than their predecessors – more experience with kids, and, crucially, different marching orders.
GRIFFIN: We’re not asking you to be therapists and do all this evidence-based stuff, but you can be therapeutic. You guys have much more contact with these kids … (fade under)
This is a session on mental health that capped their training this winter in Springfield.
Northwestern University’s Gene Griffin is explaining how people who used to be essentially guards can now be more like counselors … or at least mentors.
And he says there are critical moments when that kind of work can happen.
GRIFFIN: The learning with the kid won’t come in the middle of a crisis when his alarm’s going off and he’s feeling threatened and he just needs to get outta here. The learning for him is going to come later. So it’s the going back. It’s the quiet times when you can do the real teaching and learning. That make sense?
So to understand how the training is really affecting the culture of juvenile justice, this becomes a key question:
How often do those quiet times – so important for treating and rehabilitating – actually come along?
Four months into their new jobs, those rookies learning what’s possible to accomplish behind the walls and razor wire of an Illinois youth prison.
New juvenile justice specialists find themselves in a complicated place.
Kids at St. Charles can be desperately needy … they can also be dangerous.
And many routines designed to keep control date back to when this place was basically the adult prisons’ little brother.
(fade to black)
I talked to several of the new hires, with the facility’s superintendent and a spokeswoman for the governor sitting in.
Dinah Person says she does get the chance to have positive interactions with the kids … but she has to balance them with her security duties.
The morning counts are a good opportunity – at least on days when there’s no school.
PERSON: I’ll usually go down the wing, and I’ll usually stick my head in during the counts, and I’ll smile, and they’re all like, oh, here comes P, Miss P or Miss Person. And that‘s an opportunity for them to speak to me. instead of me hollering hey guys, get up, let’s get ready for school, or something like that.
But the highly structured day at St. Charles doesn’t leave a lot of time for heart-to-hearts.
PERSON: I didn’t expect it to be as fast as it was. It’s such a fast pace. Where I’m coming from, it was one building. And here, it’s like you gotta be here at a certain time. And they like to take their time and fix their shoes and their jeans their ‘fros and I’m like come on! We gotta get there!
There’s plenty of quiet time – but most of it is during long, silent walks from one building to another.
St. Charles is a sprawling campus – nearly the size of Chicago’s Loop – so getting around takes a huge chunk of the day.
Ambi cottage approach (alarm, on your doors)
I observed part of Dinah Person’s afternoon, to understand where the openings are to work one-on-one with youth.
Person and a co-worker shepherd their kids – as many as 40 of them – from lunch back to the cottage for a bathroom break.
Next they’re supposed to get rec time … then back to school.
But every step is a production.
Kids are counted and cajoled … contraband is confiscated … today one is off to solitary.
PERSON: We have a guy, I believe he has been confined in Taylor. Remember I was tellin’ you, schedule, things changes. (Door slams). So the original plan was try to get to the weight room, but this, security is always first.
Eventually the kids get lined up again.
PERSON: The B wing is gonna step out. Let’s go guys! (door opens) …
They make halting progress toward the weight room.
PERSON: Hold the line! (radio: 10-88!) This is your rec time. I can’t make it happen if you don’t comply to the rules. This is easy! This is everyday stuff!
When she’s not shoring up the line or policing untucked shirts, she’s doing paperwork as she walks.
Lining up and walking about a quarter mile to the weight room takes almost 20 minutes.
Ambi gym (paperwork)
They finally make it to the basement of a century-old gym. Water pools on the floor from recent rains.
MOORE: Where’s it coming from? From the door?
A few kids lift weights … most play cards or video games.
They’re supposed to get an hour of recreation, but the holdups have left them with barely 25 minutes.
Even this little unstructured time might be an opportunity to connect with a kid.
But on this day, Person has to spend the whole time hunkered down in the corner, doing paperwork.
JONES: I still honestly don’t agree that this is a therapeutic environment.
This is James Jones, another of the new staffers.
JONES: I think that the intent, it would be great if this was a therapeutic environment. But ultimately, you know, it’s … it’s a jail.
The question is whether, at a place run like a jail, a new philosophy can take root.
There have been changes – use of confinement here is down.
But there are obstacles, too: like the rigid schedule and large number of kids each worker is responsible for.
And, of course, there are the kids themselves.
Jones says the idea that they’re dying to open up if only someone would listen … is kind of a myth.
JONES: Number one, a lot of ‘em have gone through a bunch of different social service scenarios, and they’ve been inundated with adults that are trying to get their trust and form an empathetic bond, and they’re pretty resistant to it. And understandably so. There’s been a lot of adult failure in these guys’ lives.
If the kids are resistant, so are some of the old-guard staff.
The trainers back in Springfield warned the system is in for a culture clash.
Our limited access to St. Charles and its staff makes it hard to judge how that’s shaking out.
But Jones describes it as a tug of war.
JONES: You have one end of the spectrum that thinks that spare the rod and spoil the child, kind of, you know to put it in a very nice way, you know. You have the other end which is, oh, you know, we just need to figure out what’s wrong with this precious little flower, you know? And I think we’re beyond the precious flower stage with a lot of these kids. And it seems like the loudest voices on each end don’t want to acknowledge that there’s gotta be some balance between the two.
The veteran juvenile justice specialists I spoke with say they do want to help the kids … and their experience lets them key in on those teaching moments.
Their boss, Superintendent Bobby Moore, says the newcomers have a lot to learn from the old-timers about working with tough kids.
MOORE: They bring to us a lot of issues, mental health issues, social issues. And so, trying to figure out how you take that education and put that to an applicable use is not something that’s going to happen overnight. So to come in at five or six months and say, well, how’s it going? That’s like pretty much looking at a baby and saying, when are you gonna learn to walk?
There are lots of ways to measure progress, and the department is making headway on some.
But a key test is still how often staff have therapeutic interactions with kids … and there’s not much evidence that’s changed yet.