Illinois ACLU Sues to Correct Deplorable Conditions at Juvenile Detention Center

June 15, 1999 12:00 am

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Tuesday, June 15, 1999

CHICAGO, IL — The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today sued Cook County on behalf of children at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center demanding safe and sanitary living conditions and a remedy to the systematic mistreatment of young people.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, results from the dreadful and barbarous conditions at the temporary detention center, which houses children charged with delinquency or those facing criminal counts in adult court.

The timing of the lawsuit is critical: this week, the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to debate new juvenile justice system legislation that could increase populations in juvenile corrections facilities. The ACLU opposes this legislation in part because of the condition of juvenile facilities like the one in Cook County, which fail to meet the minimal standards for a youth corrections facility.

“The conditions at the detention center are absolutely heartbreaking,” said Benjamin S. Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU of Illinois. “Forgotten children are denied adequate services, left unprotected from violent attacks by other youths, physically and verbally abused by cruel guards, locked in their rooms for days often for violating petty rules, and forced to live in overcrowded conditions complete with rats and cockroaches.

“No one can be expected to live in these conditions,” he added. “These children have not yet been tried, but they already are being harshly punished.”

In a scathing 1998 report prepared by experts from the John Howard Association, the Juvenile Detention Center was said to be plagued by overcrowding and understaffing. According to the report, population often exceeds 600 — and has risen to 800 — in a complex designed to hold fewer than 500 people.

The overcrowding, combined with understaffing, lack of staff professionalism, and neglect by the administration creates a frightening and dangerous environment for the children.

Today’s lawsuit charges that the County has not implemented an effective strategy to address the serious deficiencies highlighted by a series of reports, studies and exposes over the past decade. Moreover, the suit charges that children held at the facility — many as young as 13-years-old — are in jeopardy of serious illness and are left unprotected from violence because of the unendurable conditions and gross mismanagement at the center.

“It is simply unacceptable that the administrations of Cook County and the detention center have failed to make basic, human services available to these children,” said volunteer co-counsel Jean Maclean Snyder, an attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago Law School. “Detention center administrators have promised for years to correct these problems but little has changed. These children, many of whom are being held for non-violent offenses, continue to be forced to tolerate the most unsanitary, overcrowded and perilous conditions.”

Specifically, the suit describes the following conditions:

  • Overcrowding – The facility, designed for less than 500 children, regularly houses between 600 and 800. Children of all ages are forced to sleep in temporary quarters, and violent offenders are mixed with non-violent children. Because of overcrowding, the staff is not able to provide adequate oversight, a circumstance that too often results in violent attacks on children.
  • Lack of Adequate Food – Children at the detention center complain of inadequate food and report that the staff sometimes take what food is available for themselves.

  • Lack of Educational Services – Many children receive little or no education at the detention center. This is especially acute in times of overcrowding when children are sent to an “overflow” school that provides almost no education. Additionally, few special services are provided to children with special education needs.

  • Lack of Medical Services – Children at the detention center receive little medical attention and record-keeping is poor and often in disarray. Young people do not receive prescribed medications and are often denied access to a doctor or nurse when they complain of health problems. It is also common for untrained personnel to attempt to make medical decisions without consulting appropriate professionals.

  • Room Confinement – Children are routinely subjected to punishment where they are locked in their rooms alone for up to five days and denied access to education classes and exercise. The length of such punishment bears little correlation to the alleged infraction, and there is no adequate appeals process for this punishment.

  • Understaffing – The John Howard report recommends adding more than 125 additional personnel for the complex. The union representing most of the detention center employees also complains about serious understaffing at the facility. Jesse Doyle, JTDC Superintendent and a named defendant in the case, has been cited in press reports as saying the facility is adequately staffed.

  • Poor Management – Staff are poorly managed and badly trained. The John Howard team found that the detention center staff members themselves believe that up to 30% of their colleagues should not be retained.

  • Violence – Children report that the facility is rife with violence, threats of violence and physical intimidation. Some staff abuse children and are not disciplined. Youth-on-youth violence is regularly reported, at times resulting in serious injury.

  • Unsanitary Conditions – Physical conditions at the detention center are squalid. Children complain of rodents, cockroaches and other pests. One named plaintiff reported finding a mouse in his bed.

The suit, filed on behalf of four named plaintiffs, seeks certification as a class representing all children held at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

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