Watchdog to judges: Stop putting kids with mental health needs in prison

September 27, 2013

Patrick Smith

Photo courtesy of Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice
The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice office in Springfield.

A new report from the prison watchdog John Howard Association says mental health treatment in Illinois youth prisons is so bad that judges need to stop sending kids with mental health needs to them.

The scathing report was released on Thursday. It is the latest in a series of studies that are highly critical of the care and education within the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.

The report focuses on the youth prison in Kewanee, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago. That’s the prison where the department sends its most seriously mentally ill prisoners. It also houses juvenile sex offenders and youth who need maximum-security detainment.

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, says the problems at Kewanee stem from the decision to combine the department’s three “neediest and most difficult” groups of kids in a remote youth prison with inadequate resources.

That’s where the problems begin. But according to the report, it is not where they end.

Report author Jennifer Vollen-Katz found Kewanee to be lacking in staffing for security, mental health and education. The result is “an environment that is unsustainable, unsafe and counterproductive,” Vollen-Katz wrote..

Maki says more than a third of the needed mental health positions are unfilled, even though there is money in the budget for them. That means kids are missing out on more than 250 hours of crucial mental health care every week.

Failing to fill authorized positions “points to [a failure] at the top” of the department, Maki said. And he is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of progress.

“For prison systems, most of the problems they deal with are mostly beyond their control...The problems at Kewanee are problems that the agency has control over,” Maki said.

Maki said staffing is so inadequate that judges shouldn’t send kids with mental health needs to the department any more, because they are bound to end up in Kewanee, and they won’t get adequate treatment there.

A clerk for Judge Michael Toomin - who heads the Cook County juvenile courts - said the judge was unavailable for an interview, but that he has no opinion on the suggestion from the John Howard Association.

Judge Sophia Hall, who presides over the juvenile court's resource section, said the key is to provide mental health services to kids before they enter the justice system. But she said that takes resources the state doesn't really have.

"The question I would have, and that anyone would have, is where do we put kids with mental health issues?" she asked.

The John Howard report follows a trio of reports released by the Illinois ACLU on Monday as part of a class action lawsuit against the Department of Juvenile Justice, each focusing on different areas of trouble for the juvenile justice agency.

Dr. Louis Kraus spent time in Kewanee - and all the youth prisons - talking to prisoners and observing the conditions. According to his report, Kraus found mentally ill prisoners at Kewanee spending an excessive amount of time in their cells, unable to get treatment and education because security staff was about 20 guards short of its adequate level. Kraus also found youth in specialized treatment units were spending up to 24 hours a day confined to their rooms - and the confinement rooms were filthy, with food and other debris covering the floor.

Some of the words Kraus used in his report to describe the department’s mental health treatment, policy and staffing are: insufficient, inadequate, improper, deficient and dangerous.

The Department of Juvenile Justice has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Patrick Smith is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @pksmid.