About two years ago, workers at the Illinois youth prison in west suburban St. Charles were warning about a dangerous rise in youth assaults on staff members.
At a picket outside of the facility in August 2017, Educator Maria Johnston-Becker described being punched so hard by one of the kids, she was forced to go on medical leave for months.
“We’re here to rehabilitate them, educate them and make them productive members of society so they don’t go out again and commit crimes. And we’re failing at our jobs,” Johnston-Becker said.
The staff warned that a ban on the use of solitary confinement was allowing the facility to spiral out of control.
But now things are turning around, according to a report by the independent prison watchdog John Howard Association.
In its annual monitoring visit to the St. Charles youth prison, the John Howard Association found that a drop in the youth population has allowed staff to “better manage youth behavior.”
The youth population dropped by 35% from 2018 to 2019. And, the association found that youth on staff assaults are down about 40% compared to the year before, with the facility averaging seven such incidents per month, down from 12 per month in the first half of 2018.
“In 2018, staff reported that they feared for their safety, and [John Howard Association] staff noted a [palpable] tension between youth and staff, who rarely interacted with one another,” the John Howard report reads.
In 2019, according to the report, “staff still do not feel entirely safe,” but “relations have improved significantly.”
In an email, Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME, the union that represents the St. Charles staff, said the findings by the association show “progress in the right direction, but it’s not enough” because there are still seven assaults on staff per month.
“Violence by youth offenders against staff should never be normalized,” Lindall said. “No one should ever have to accept violent physical assault as a job requirement.”
As the population at the prison has dropped, the kids being held there are getting more time outside and more time in the classroom, according to the report.
“You can do better when you treat youth in small settings, when you can provide care that is more individualized, when you can have people out of their rooms or cells more often,” Jennifer Vollen-Katz, the John Howard Association’s executive director, said. “When there is opportunity to engage in activity youth do better. You know, their behavior is improved. And I think that that sets a tone and creates a different dynamic between youth and staff that has positive impact.”
Data from the Department of Juvenile Justice show that the youth population at St. Charles, and in all of the state’s youth prisons, has continued to decline since the John Howard monitoring visit earlier this year.
St. Charles is the largest remaining youth prison in Illinois, with a capacity of about 350. The youth population was down to 78 in April, according to state figures.
Vollen-Katz said Illinois is getting close to the point where it could close St. Charles altogether.
“We've done a great job of getting the population low,” Vollen-Katz said. “We are headed in the right direction. However, as long as we continue to run any of these large facilities, we're not there yet.”
Susie An contributed reporting for this story.