Inside and Out: Keeping kids out of prison for good

February 3, 2011

Robert Wildeboer

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Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz
The Chicago youth prison sees young men cycle in and out.

Young people often face a rocky transition when  they get out of prison and go home. Most talk about turning their lives around. And yet, in Illinois, half these kids end up back inside.

Yesterday, as part of our juvenile justice series Inside and Out, we met a family that appears to be giving up on their 18-year-old son because he keeps getting arrested. Their lives are too busy and stressful - they're worn down.

But today,  we spend time with Gail, who seems to bring endless energy to the often challenging job of raising a teenage son in a city full of pitfalls.

Gail's son has been giving her a lot of trouble over the past couple years.

GAIL: As a parent, I wish they had a drop off center, you know when you take little newborns and you get to...  That's how much I feel out of control with helping him.

Gail's son, and we're not using her last name to protect his identity, he's doing his second stint at IYC Chicago, a prison for kids, and she's worried about him getting out of prison because when he came out the first time he ended up going straight back to his gang.

GAIL: He didn't want to go back out there to his friends but it was so powerful.  I don't want him to come home.  I don't.  Cause we're here now, I could be in the funeral home tomorrow.  I'm scared for my son to come home because it's going to pull him back.  The gangs are there to catch him, always.

The youth prison where Gail's son is being held in Chicago is an unremarkable building on Western Avenue just south of the the Lake Street "L" line.

The exterior is a mustard yellow metal and it kind of looks like a school gym.

On this evening, Gail's come to a parent meeting, one of the first.

It's a new idea Earl Merritt came up with.

He's the superintendent, what would be called a warden in an adult facility.

MERRITT: I think that if we're going to be successful working with our kids we have to find a way to reunite families.  You have to put kids back with their families and I believe this is a big step toward doing that.

Merritt's idea is kind of a shoe string budget solution to a huge problem that's gone unsolved in the department and it's this:

Kids leaving prison all talk a good game about finishing their education, being productive, and yet they often immediately fall back into old habits.

Within months a lot of them are back inside.

The original plan for the 4 and a half year old deparment of juvenile justice included so called aftercare, a network of support on the outside.

Aftercare is supposed to provide support for kids who often don't have the skills and maturity to get back in school or get a job on their own.

But at least right now, such a safety net doesn't exist.

So Merritt and his employees are trying to do what they can.

MERRITT: All it takes to succeed in this is just to care. There's no great deal of skill.  You find that when you work with people who care about what they're doing, who believe in the mission, and believe in the goals of what they're doing, the work becomes easy.

All the employees involved in the parent's night are volunteering their time to attend the meeting after work.

They've invited parents like Gail to come in and talk about what they'll need when their sons come home.

The meeting is being held in the prison's visiting room.

Noisy vending machines line one wall.

On the other side is a table with a bucket of ice and some pops.

There's an enormous tray of cheese cubes and rolled up cold cuts with toothpicks sticking out of them and saran wrap draped over top.

MERRITT: I will not be disappointed if only two mothers or two fathers show up here today and listen to what we have to say, I will consider it a success.

WILDEBOER: That's a lot of cold cuts for them to eat though.

MERRITT: Well there's you and I after, after the things over with.

Merritt's projection is on the money.

Other than Gail and her ex husband, only one other parent shows up.

But the dozen or so staff pull chairs into a circle and explain what they do.

SOT: My name is Cara Murphy.  I actually work with the...

When the presentations are over Gail starts in on her long list of concerns.

One of the main ones is her son's drug habit.

She wants to get him into a drug program as soon as he's released but she doesn't have any money to pay for it.

GAIL: He at sixteen is all tapped out with insurance and benefits and lifetime coverage, he's tapped out at sixteen.  So I can't go see a counselor any more because he's used all his sessions.  So I need something.

MURPHY: And I think that's completely reasonable and…

Murphy and the others tell Gail that they have a database of drug counseling providers that charge on a sliding scale and they should be able to find one in her neighborhood.

Gail also wants a mentor for her son to combat the lure of gangs, and she wants to get him into a program to keep him busy when he gets out.

For every concern, staff members come up with some possible solutions and they tell Gail they'll make some calls and get back to her.

In less than an hour Gail, who knows her son better than anyone, is on the way to getting the resources she thinks her son will need to stay out of prison.

And she says it was therapeutic to be able to talk about these issues and get some help.

That meeting was actually last June and in the intervening six months since prison employees followed up with Gail on every issue she raised.

But her son was released in September and it hasn't been without challenges.

GAIL: He got released on the 15th and on the 19th he was arrested.

Gail says he was arrested for throwing gang signs and cluttering up the sidewalk and quote, "intimidating people."

Now she knows that her son isn't an angel but she readily admits when he breaks the law and this sounds to her like a bogus charge.

GAIL: It almost seems like they're just gonna keep charging him, charging him, 14, 15, 16, 17 and wham we got him, 18-years-old lets send him to 26th and California, so that's the path that I believe they're on with my son, the police and task force around here.

Gail says police also shared her son's juvenile record with her neighbors at the local CAPS meeting but she doesn't want to make a fuss over the disclosure because she doesn't want to draw more police attention to her son than he already gets.

And Gail has had difficulty scheduling with the non-profit groups the prison staff worked so hard to hook her up with.

Here's one example... they connected Gail with a counseling center near her house and she made an appointment to start individual, group, and family counseling but…

GAIL: They only had interns for the sessions and my insurance only pays for certified therapists, so that fell through.

In the end, her son was out of prison without any services from the Department of Juvenile Justice.

GAIL: The only thing that is for sure is that his parole officer will come by once a month for five minutes, give him a drug test and that's it, and that's it.  What is that?  What is that?

BISHOP: DOC parole agents, they do what they do.  And this is what they've been trained to do is to monitor.

Arthur Bishop is the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, the agency that runs the prisons for kids.

BISHOP: We're starting at ground zero in developing an aftercare program.  There is no aftercare, true aftercare program.

Right now, even though kids go to youth prisons, when they get out they're under adult parole.

Those parole agents just show up to see if kids are breaking any rules, and if they are, they bring the kids back to prison.

But, Bishop says, that's going to change.

7 people start training this week to become so called aftercare specialists.

They'll be case managers so that if a kid is violating parole by say, using drugs, instead of just sending him back to prison, these new case workers will try to get the kid some treatment.

Another 14 are scheduled to start in May. 

All of those employees will be working in the Chicago area but Bishop says he hopes to hire even more to work across the state.

Robert Wildeboer, WBEZ.

And an update: Earl Merritt was recently retired as superintendent of I-Y-C Chicago.