Experts say Illinois youth prisons need independent ombudsman

The head of Juvenile Justice Commission calls on Gov. Quinn to act in response to report on sexual abuse in youth prisons.

June 11, 2013

By: Patrick Smith

(Photo courtesy of Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice)
IYC Chicago.

The chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission says Gov. Pat Quinn must act quickly to protect kids in the state’s youth prisons.

Retired Judge George Timberlake says incarcerated youth need to be able to complain safely to an independent government employee.

“When we created the Department of Juvenile Justice, one of the fundamental ideas was an ombudsman, and that didn’t happen. So that’s something that can be almost immediately created,” Timberlake said.

Timberlake called for the governor to act after a recent federal report found that Illinois was among the worst states in the nation when it comes to reports by young people of sexual victimization..

According to the report, based on surveys collected from inmates last year, about 15 percent of kids in Illinois youth prisons reported being sexually victimized while inside.

Nationally the average was about 10 percent.

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Gov. Quinn wrote that “a comprehensive top-to-bottom review of the agency and its procedures has been ordered.”

That review will include an outside expert visiting every youth prison and interviewing incarcerated youth.

“One of the key issues to be included in the comprehensive evaluation is the creation of an independent oversight body or ombudsman for investigations into allegations of abuse,” according to the statement.

But Timberlake says the governor shouldn’t wait for recommendations from outside experts, he should deploy an ombudsman now.

Timberlake and other juvenile justice advocates say an ombudsman would help fix a grievance process that right now forces kids in youth prisons to file complaints with the prison’s leadership.

John Maki, head of the prison watchdog John Howard Association, says that essentially means incarcerated youth are forced to “complain about the guards to the guards.”

Department of Juvenile Justice Director Arthur Bishop called the report’s findings serious and disturbing and said he is taking immediate action.

That includes creating a 24-hour hotline for youth to call with concerns, and a youth commission that will help advise him.

“We want to make sure that our youth are safe and make sure that our youth have a voice, and that’s very important that we find out where was the voice of the youth?” Bishop said.

Jennifer Florent, a department’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email that “the creation of an ombudsman is one of the items that we will be discussing with the experts.”

At the end of the day Monday, Florent said experts for the new panel DJJ is creating had not yet been confirmed,  so she could not provide names to WBEZ.

Maki says prisons are ripe for the kind of sexual abuse identified in the report, and one way to prevent sexual victimization from happening is to allow an outside group or individual unfettered access to youth prisons and the kids inside them.

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ reporter.