In 2015 the state of Illinois was forced to largely eliminate solitary confinement in youth prisons. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union says guards at the Illinois Youth Center in Harrisburg have come up with an even worse substitution: charges and, consequently, some long sentences for kids committing minor infractions.
The ACLU’s claim is part of a motion filed Monday in federal court. In it, attorneys for the ACLU are asking a judge to bar the state from sending anyone to the Illinois Youth Center. The motion claims youth sent to the center “are at continuous risk of being funnelled directly into the overcrowded adult prison system.”
The problem, according to the filing, is that guards are referring assaults on staff to the Saline County prosecutor, and juvenile inmates are getting lengthy sentences that don’t fit the crime.
Monday’s motion is part of ongoing federal court oversight of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. The oversight is the result of a class-action lawsuit’s settlement. As part of that settlement, in 2015, the state agreed to stop using solitary confinement as punishment within its youth prisons.
ACLU attorney Camille Bennett said the rash of staff-referred prosecutions is a backlash against that change.
The motion cites information from the Saline County state’s attorney that staff believe the Harrisburg youth prison has become “chaotic” because it is bereft of “any effective discipline.”
“It’s apparently a staff reaction to concerns about them not being able to use extended isolated confinement for the youth anymore, as a result of the settlement for our case. So that’s why it’s a matter of concern for us, as well as just being really horrible for these kids,” Bennett said.
Bennett said the cases being prosecuted are often over “minor staff assault incidents.”
“A kid spits on a staff member, a kid shoves a staff member, and these are criminal prosecutions for aggravated battery, which is a class 2 felony,” Bennett said. “And if the youth are already 18 years old, this can result in them going to the adult prison system.”
According to the motion, there have been more than 40 assault charges filed against youth in Harrisburg since January 2016. The motion asks the judge to order the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice to come up with a plan to stop these criminal prosecutions, and stop sending kids to the Illinois Youth Center in the meantime.
A spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents youth prison staff, described the Harrisburg center employees as being on the front lines of rehabilitating youth offenders, which he called “difficult and, too often, dangerous” work.
“The increasing prevalence of individuals with mental illness in both the juvenile justice and adult corrections systems has raised serious challenges that the state has not yet adequately addressed,” union spokesman Anders Lindall said in a statement. “In the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, violence against employees must have consequences. ... No one should be attacked or otherwise assaulted at work. Period. If they are, it is the right of any individual to seek to press charges.”
WBEZ obtained records from the Saline County state’s attorney related to charges in adult court over alleged assaults on staff within Harrisburg youth prison.
From September 2015 to March 2017 there were 16 adult criminal cases filed over alleged assaults at the facility.
The alleged offenses run the gamut — from spitting to shoving to stabbing a staff member in the leg with a pencil. In all of the cases, the charge was aggravated battery, which is a felony.
Almost all of the cases are still making their way through court, but three have ended with sentences. They are: Six years in the Illinois Department of Corrections for spitting in a guard’s face; four years for punching a guard in the face; six years for biting a guard’s arm.
The majority of the cases, 45 since 2013, were filed in juvenile court and those records are confidential.
Bennett said almost all of the incidents should have been handled within the facility. The motion points to the fact that no case required hospitalization, and that the department did not refer the incidents to the state’s attorney, as evidence that these were not dangerous assaults.
In a statement, Department of Juvenile Justice spokesman Mike Theodore said the department takes any assault seriously, and “immediately launches an investigation following such an incident.”
“After careful consideration, the department determines whether to utilize internal disciplinary procedures or if the incident should be referred to the local prosecutor for consideration of formal charges. Individual IDJJ staff at times choose to seek prosecution as private citizens, and the department does not interfere with this choice,” Theodore said.
Since the beginning of 2016, the department has found that just three Harrisburg cases merited outside prosecution.
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ reporter and producer. Follow him @pksmid.