Inside the Walls of Juvenile Detention

ABC7 Exclusive
October 26, 2009 (CHICAGO) To ensure change, it's been under the supervision of a Cook County judge for the past two years. But ABC7 found many people who say the place still has a long way to go.

Our cameras were given unprecedented access, but we are following our regular policy at ABC7 of not showing the faces of juveniles.

Children are between 10 and 17 years old when they enter the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. They are awaiting trial, sentencing or a transfer to prison.

"I was one of them that would say, 'I can't believe they're in jail. I can't believe they're here. That is not gonna be me,'" said "Angel," 20.

"Basically, we're locked up so it's not a lot that you can ask for," said "Roberto," 18.

The complex had long been reputed as bad. It reached its tipping point in the 1990s.

"Different youths would tell us essentially the same stories, that they'd been beaten by some of the same staff people, that they had been choked until they passed out, that they'd been locked in their rooms for days on end, sometimes without enough food," said Benjamin Wolf, American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "Rats were running all over the place."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed suit in 2002. In 2007, after the county failed to make promised improvements, a federal judge appointed an independent administrator to implement change.

"Two to three weeks into the process, I just kind of stood back to myself and said 'welcome to the gates of hell,'" said Earl Dunlap, transitional administrator.

Dunlap comes with a 40-year career in juvenile justice. He says this facility was the worst he had ever seen. His first priority was to reorganize the center.

The center has 489 beds but at one time more than 800 kids were kept there. That's down to 400 now and Dunlap wants that number reduced to about 250.

"To keep one bed occupied in this facility for a year costs the taxpayers more than it would cost to send your youngster to Harvard for six years," said Dunlap.

Dunlap created smaller units within the facility, hoping to make it easier to manage the residents.

"We have a unit of what we call automatic transfers which are residents that are charged as adults. We have a unit that are first and second time admits and we have a unit of residents that have been here three or more times," said Derrian Mckinney, team leader for Phoenix Center at JTDC.

Dunlap created new hiring standards, too. He fired about two dozen people and hired 200 in less than a year. New hires must have college degrees -- a requirement that has removed many veteran staffers from direct supervision of children. The new hires also go through 160 hours of training. There's even a graduation ceremony.

The ACLU says it's pleased with the progress.

"He's really moving things in the right direction which we had not seen when Cook County was running this place for years," said Wolf.

However, many long-time employees criticize the new administration. ABC7 talked to several who say veteran staff members get a bad rap.

"Some of the things that were reported that staff were being abusive and as part of the old staff you're looked at as part of the abuse that was going on and you may not have seen any abuse or partaked in any, but you still got that label put on you," said Lynne West, recreation worker.

West has been a recreation worker for the past ten years, organizing activities like the girls' choir. She says she's seen more fights and violent attacks lately. She blames the new disciplinary system, called the cognitive behavior technique. It assigns residents "time outs" for bad behavior. She believes the old system offered a greater deterrent. Residents would likely be locked in their rooms.

"I think we need to start holding our residents, our children, our youth to a higher standard and we won't see all of these violent episodes whether it's in here or outside," said West.

Earl Dunlap wants to leave by summer 2010. He says the facility won't be perfect, but hopes it will be ready for transition back to Cook County.

The ACLU expects to continue monitoring the facility weekly, even after a permanent administrator is named.

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