Gov. Quinn Keeping Youth Prisons in the Dark
You may not think what goes on in Illinois' youth prisons affects you. Think again. Thousands of teenagers from all across the state cycle in and out of Illinois' eight juvenile prisons each year. What happens to them inside goes back with them to their communities. Taxpayers are footing the more-than-$100 million budget for these places. We want to be able to see for ourselves how they're run and bring that information to you. But Governor Pat Quinn says no.
Eighteen-year-old Brandon, who asked that we not use his last name, has spent nearly a third of his life in jails and prisons for kids in Illinois. He avoided solitary until this year, when he got in a fight near the end of his sentence. He says the harsh conditions made solitary confinement at the St. Charles facility west of Chicago something he's unlikely to forget. For example, he says your food is handed to you through a small slot in the door. It's not on one big tray, it's on several small trays and they come through quickly. The first day he learned not to set the trays on the floor.
BRANDON: Rodents kept climbing on my food. When I set it down, they ran across the floor, ran over my food and ran around the room like six more times and I didn't see it after that. There's rats in there. Rats, there's roaches all in there. On average, you'll see like seven rats a day. Nine, 10 rats a day, yourself. Not including what everybody else din saw.
Brandon says the showers were no better. But the first time he was asked if he wanted a shower, he said yes.
BRANDON: And I went in there, no. I turned around and said, 'No. I'm good,' cause it was, smelt like all piss an shit. Like, shit.
Brandon says there was feces smeared onto the tiles. He never took a shower during his two week stint in isolation. Brandon doesn't have too much good to say about the education he received either. He graduated from the prison high school system but he says it was a joke.
BRANDON: They got some sixth grade to ninth grade only. So easy to pass, they giving you grammar school work and you supposed to be working at a high school level.
Another young man told me his teacher in prison took attendance at the beginning of the class and then turned to his computer and the kids just killed the time talking.
These are certainly troubling allegations that merit further investigation to see if they're true, or partially true, or if the kids are telling tall tales. But Governor Quinn is refusing to let WBEZ inside the Department of Juvenile Justice facilities to see how they're run, for both the kids and the taxpayers of Illinois. After four months of meetings, emails and phone conversations, WBEZ was invited to go on a single supervised tour of the prison in Chicago, which kids say is much much better than St. Charles in the western suburbs. Quinn said no to WBEZ's repeated requests for a reporter to spend four days during business hours sitting in classes and visiting other parts of the prison in St. Charles. That's the same facility where a 16-year-old committed suicide in September.
REED: Quinn is running one of the most open and transparent administrations that the state has ever seen and in the state's history.
Bob Reed is Quinn's spokesman. He says WBEZ can't be in the facilities right now because the governor's office is doing a review of its own.
REED: That's going to enable the governor's senior staff and our administration to have a much more comprehensive idea of what is occurring in the system.
WILDEBOER: Let me just stop you there. How does WBEZ, being in the facilities now, inhibit in any way, your ability, the governor's ability, the governor's staff's ability to conduct their own fact finding?
REED: Let me be clear. We didn't bar them from all facilities. We offered a tour of the Chicago facility. Your editors decided that that was not the necessary access the station needed to tell its story.
WILDEBOER: Ok. So, do you think that, on a one tour of one facility, we will get a comprehensive, in-depth insight into a $100 million department that services thousands of kids every year in facilities across the state? Do you think we'll get an in-depth understanding of that department in one tour?
REED: I don't think you would get an in-depth understanding of that if you toured every facility you wanted, whenever you wanted, for any length of time. This is a long, long process and one of the reasons the governor's staff wants to take a look at the system is to make sure it has an understanding of what is occurring there.
WILDEBOER: And, again, how would WBEZ doing the same thing at the same time interfere with that at all?
REED: We don't think it's appropriate for the press to go in, talk to juveniles who are in our charge. We're really concerned about protecting their identities, their privacy.
Vinny Schiraldi said he's heard that argument before. He's runs the juvenile prison system in Washington D.C.
SCHIRALDI: Too many juvenile justice systems use those confidentiality rights to protect themselves as ways to protect themselves as opposed to protecting the confidentiality of the kids.
As I've been researching juvenile prisons over the last few months, a number of people have suggested I visit D.C., it has a good reputation for rehabilitating kids. I contacted them this week and Schiraldi called me back the same day.
WILDEBOER: I was hoping to come down and visit you guys there. Would that be possible?
SCHIRALDI: Yeah. Absolutely. Come any time you want. Yeah, I told Reggie that, just set it up for, I think next week, you wanted to set it up for? Or this week? I don't know. Reggie's going to deal with you on that.
Reggie is Reggie Sanders, the public information officer.
SCHIRALDI: There's a great school at the facility. You know, you can hang around there, be where the kids are playing basketball. There's a bunch of cool stuff you can take pictures of, but you'll pretty much have free reign when you come.
WILDEBOER: And so when would I be able to set this up?
SCHIRALDI: Whenever Reggie tells you. I mean, it's a scheduling issue, that's all.
Shiraldi says prisons need to be open to the public, and the public's representatives, the media. He says prisons are so shrouded in secrecy and they're susceptible to bad practices because the public isn't around like it in other government agencies.
SHIRALDI: When you're a correctional administrator, you close everybody off, the only thing you find out about what's going on in your facility is what you're staff is willing to tell you or what you happen to see when tour through it. Well every time I tour through it, I know what happens. Everybody gets on their walkie talkies and says, 'Schiraldi's in the building. Be on your best behavior.'
Schiraldi says he gotten over this by giving the public defender an office within the prison, within the secure perimeter. He's also given space in the prison to the natural antagonists of a prison bureaucrat like himself, the "pesky" groups that advocate for the kids.
SCHIRALDI: And pesky I use in the most endearing loving way. They have an interest in telling you the stinkiest, rottenest thing that's going on there, and boy is it important to know that.
Quinn spokesman Bob Reed says the governor also wants the real story from inside, but apparently not from the media.
REED: The scrutiny continues and the scrutiny will be ongoing and our administration is providing that scrutiny.
Reed says they need some time while they do their review.
The problem is that the Department of Juvenile Justice has had time. More than three years since legislators separated juvenile prisons from the adult system. Paula Wolff is with Metropolis 2020, a group that pushed legislators to do that with high hopes that kids could be rehabilitated instead of just warehoused.
WOLFF: It's hard for me to see evidence that we are treating the youth within these facilities differently from the way we were three years ago.
Wolff is hardly alone in her criticism. It's high time the public gets a better look at the challenges facing the Department of Juvenile Justice. While Governor Quinn studies the issue, he can encourage more public understanding and debate by allowing media access to a department that is not living up to its mission.