A room at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. A blue ribbon committee convened by Chief Judge Tim Evans found that conditions at the JTDC were “isolating and deprivational.” Photo from the Blue Ribbon Committee on the JTDC

(This story was reported and first published by Injustice Watch and republished with permission.)

In a scathing new report, a group of juvenile justice experts said the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center — a five-story fortress with courtrooms and a public school that houses as many as 175 youths on any given day on Chicago’s West Side — should be permanently shut down and replaced with smaller, community-based facilities focused on rehabilitation.

The report comes from a “blue ribbon” committee convened last year by Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans, whose office oversees the detention center, the country’s largest stand-alone juvenile jail. Evans tasked the committee with evaluating procedures and outcomes at the detention center, especially as they relate to how long youths are confined to their cells.

The committee found that the detention center, which is known as the JTDC, is “isolating and deprivational,” rather than rehabilitative. Most kids and teenagers there — the vast majority of whom are Black — spend at least 13 hours per day locked in their small cells: One hour to lock down the facility during shift changes and from 7pm to 7am for what jail officials refer to as “sleeping hours.” The committee noted that no healthy teenager sleeps during that stretch of time and said jail staff often discipline youths by confining them to their cells for several more hours on top of that.

Youth are locked in their cells for most of the day, every day. No parent would be allowed to do this to their child.”

excerpt from report

“Semantics do not diminish the harsh reality that JTDC youth are locked in their cells for most of the day, every day,” the committee wrote. “No parent would be allowed to do this to their child.”

Evans received the committee’s report in May, but his office didn’t publicly release it until suddenly Tuesday — a week after Injustice Watch obtained a copy of the report and began questioning the chief judge’s office about it.

Also Tuesday, a spokesperson for Evans announced that the chief judge was forming another committee to implement the blue ribbon committee’s recommendations. But the office did not immediately provide a full list of the committee’s members or respond to questions about when their work will begin or which recommendations the chief judge plans to implement.

Evans’ hand-picked chair of the blue ribbon committee, retired lawyer and child psychologist Gene Griffin, said in an interview he was happy that Evans released the report but expressed concern that convening another committee would just delay the necessary changes.

“I would much rather he actually be implementing some of the recommendations as opposed to another committee to look at the recommendations,” Griffin said. “It’s good to be looking at these issues, but by appointing another committee, that doesn’t change anything for the kids in detention today. And our committee took a whole year, so this means another year of no changes until another committee report comes out? That would be disappointing.”

In a letter that he sent to Evans in May, Griffin issued a sharp rebuke of JTDC Superintendent Leonard Dixon, saying he should be fired and replaced with someone who is “committed to transforming the JTDC from simply housing youth within its charge to safely developing youth competency.” The full committee, however, did not take a position on whether Dixon should be replaced, according to Griffin and several other members.

Evans’ spokesperson did not make the chief judge available for an interview or respond to Injustice Watch’s specific questions about the report. A spokesperson for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also did not respond to questions about whether the county plans to allocate funds to build smaller juvenile detention facilities.

In a written rebuttal to the committee’s report, Dixon wrote that he did not oppose the idea of sending kids to smaller facilities.

But he took issue with almost everything else in the report, arguing that the committee didn’t understand the fundamental difference between short-term detention centers such as the JTDC — where kids await trial — and long-term correctional facilities where kids serve sentences after their conviction for a crime.

The JTDC, Dixon wrote, “can only address the immediate needs of our residents given the brief time that they are in our custody.” Last year, 40% of the kids who were detained at the JTDC were released within three days, according to the superintendent.

Bad staff call you names, curse at you, throw things at you and hit you – and then say they were only playing around.”

an incarcerated youth interviewed by the committee

But even short-term stints in isolation can cause serious harm to detained youths, especially if they already suffer from mental illnesses or substance abuse, said Dr. Renee Mehlinger, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who led the committee’s work on the JTDC’s room-confinement policies.

“The research really shows that room confinement is not suitable for kids at all,” Mehlinger told Injustice Watch. “Room confinement should only be used for threats of immediate harm and as a last resort but not for practices like for behavioral control or behavioral management,” she added.

The committee interviewed currently and formerly detained youths and included anonymous quotes from them throughout the report.

“There’s good staff and bad staff,” one young person told the committee. “Bad staff call you names, curse at you, and throw things at you and hit you and then say they were only playing around. When we’re in our rooms, some staff talk bad about us, but we can still hear them.”

“Staff will call off on weekends and holidays,” said another. “Summer is very short-staffed, so we almost never came out of our rooms.”

“Staff uses room confinement to control us,” another young person said. “Staff can put you in your room as much as they want without telling why or how long you will be there,” said another.

The number of times that youths at the detention center were confined to their rooms as punishment for a rule infraction actually decreased from 2019 to 2021, a period when admissions to the JTDC decreased by more than 25%, according to data analyzed for the committee by researchers at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

But the number and duration of nonpunitive confinements — such as those for medical reasons, shift changes, or “self-confinement” — increased in 2020 and 2021, largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the report.

The committee’s report is the latest in a string of outside reports that have blasted the juvenile jail for its conditions and practices, particularly room confinement.

Evans convened the blue ribbon committee in April 2021 in response to a report by the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center Advisory Board, a public body created by the county board, which called for the end of punitive room confinement at the jail. That followed reporting by the Chicago Reporter in 2018 that found that the use of punitive confinement had increased, even as the detention center’s population had decreased, and three reports from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Children’s Law and Policy that had urged the detention center to reduce its reliance on room confinement to control kids’ behavior.

The blue ribbon committee’s report comes to light as Evans, 79, faces two crucial elections in the coming months: First, the county’s circuit judges will vote Sept. 13 on whether to give Evans a record eighth term as chief judge, a position that he has had since 2001. Then, on Nov. 8, voters will decide whether to retain Evans as a circuit judge for another six-year term.

Jonah Newman

Jonah Newman is an editor for Injustice Watch. Previously, he has worked for Pacific Standard magazine, The Chicago Reporter, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Carlos Ballesteros

Carlos is a reporter at Injustice Watch covering police, politics and immigrant communities. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times and Newsweek. Carlos was born in Chicago and lives in the city’s...