Inside and Out: Stress and fatigue can defeat families

February 2, 2011

By Robert Wildeboer

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Nearly half the kids leaving Illinois youth prisons end up back inside. They just can't make it outside. The pull of the old life is strong, and a lot of times,  the families of young offenders just can't get them back into school, or a job, or away from the street.  It's a wasteful cycle…for the state and especially for the lives of kids themselves.  WBEZ's Inside and Out team met a lot of these young people last year as we reported on the state's youth prisons. We're revisiting some of them this week, as we begin a look at what it would take to keep more kids out of prison for good.   

When Meechie was in the Chicago prison for kids his mother and grandmother visited him without fail.

SHAPREE: She wants to go every weekend.

JOSIE: That's my oldest grandbaby and he's locked up, he can't get out and I know I would want to see somebody, at least on the weekend.  I love my baby I'm sorry.  I just love my grandson.

SHAPREE: That's not teaching him a lesson of him missing us and him doing what he needs to do.

JOSIE: That's teaching him a lesson.  I think he have learned his lesson.  I don't want him to think that I gave up on him.  I haven't gave up on him during the times that he was doing the stuff he wasn't supposed to be doing so I'm not giving up on him now.

They drive a couple miles through a heavy rain on a Saturday morning from the house on Chicago's West Side to the youth prison on Western Avenue, a few lights north of the Eisenhower.

I should say here that we're not using Meechie's last name to protect his identity because of his status as a juvenile offender.

On the way to the prison on this morning, his mom and grandmother stop to pick up Meechie's son.

JOSIE: Hello Foo-foo.  Say 'hi.'

The three of them head into the prison and spend a couple hours with Meechie in the visting room but it doesn't go well.

Meechie is down because he recently got a ticket for a disciplinary infraction of some sort, nothing major but it's got him worried.

The judge in his case said she'd keep him in prison if he didn't stay out of trouble.

But in the hearing a week later, a guard from the prison calls Meechie a quote, "model youth."

That, along with his good grades impressed the judge and she let him out.

MEECHIE: Yeah, I was praying all night so I could come home!  Fixin' to go to the house, get in the shower, and change my clothes and stuff.

Back at home, on his front porch, Meechie says all the right things, the things he heard over and over from staff in prison.

MEECHIE: Yeah I'm fenna get my GED.  I'm probably fenna go to Malcolm X, get my GED.

But actually going to Malcolm X city college and signing up, that doesn't happen before he's arrested on a drug charge just a couple weeks after being released.

For whatever reason Meechie didn't go sign up on his own.

He isn't mature enough, or determined enough, or something.

And his family didn't help and no one else was on him to make sure he got enrolled.

And his new case is an adult case because he's 18 now.

On the plus side, he's not being held at the Cook County jail though he does have to spend his days there as part of a day reporting program, a way for the jail to keep an eye on him without having to actually keep him 24/7.

But the hearings in adult court are confusing, and frustrating and often times degrading.

At his first hearing he didn't have an attorney lined up and the judge, Gloria Chevere, berated him.

She scheduled a hearing for a week later and said if he doesn't have a private attorney by then, she's going to take the thousand dollars he posted for bond, and she's going to give it to the first lawyer who happens to be in court that day and that will be his attorney.

Meechie and his mom leave angry and silent, walking 20 feet apart.

MEECHIE: I don't even want to talk about it.

With the hearing done, Meechie is supposed to go back to the jail for the day reporting program, but his mom has had it.…she just drives him back home along with his co-defendant who also had to be in court that day.

She drops them both off at a corner in the neighborhood, the same streets where they were arrested.

Later at home, tired and seeming depressed, she eats a small pizza off of a paper plate and won't talk about the case.

SHAPREE: I ain't fenna answer no questions because I don't feel like it.

She says there's no more she can do for her son.

Meechie's grandmother Josie is willing to talk but it seems like she too has given up.

She's laying on the coach watching One Oh Six and park on B-E-T with two of Meechie's younger siblings.

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She's able to provide housing for a couple of her adult children and their children.

But her job working on case files for cancer patients who have died is depressing and the ride to work is an hour and a half on the bus each way.

JOSIE: I'm tired.  Disgusted.  This is my building, I wanted to move from around here so maybe he would have a better chance in life but I can't afford to move.

Josie says she's told the family they shouldn't call her at work anymore when Meechie is in trouble.

JOSIE: Long as I don't know what he doing now, it don't bother me too much because I just can't take it no more.  I don't want to see him in jail cause he's not in juvie no more, this will be the county.

The thing about Meechie's story and his family's inability to help him, it's a very common.

In reporting on juvenile justice I've met a number of moms who gave up on their kids, and it's usually for good reason.

With limited time and energy, some choose to focus on the younger kids because maybe they can still be saved.

Others have no choice because of health problems.

I've talked to moms who are under doctor's orders to avoid stress which means avoiding their kids and their kid's problems.

But even moms who haven't given up, they still have a hard time getting help for their kids.

Tune in tomorrow as we hear about one mother's often frustrated efforts to get her son more support than the monthly five minute visit from a parole officer that he's getting now.

Robert Wildeboer, WBEZ.