Legal advocates urge change after report reveals abusive behavior against mostly Black teenagers with learning disabilities and mental health disorders

This story was reported and originally published by Injustice Watch and is republished with permission.

A yearlong review of practices inside the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center found that staff often use dangerous and illegal forms of restraint and isolation, fail to keep adequate records, and are sometimes “entirely inhumane” to the teenagers they oversee.

So egregious are the conditions inside the five-story center on Chicago’s West Side, the authors of a state-sanctioned report published Friday recommend sweeping reforms — the most dramatic being shutting down the institution and starting over with a more community-based system.

The 96-page federally funded report authored by the nonprofit disability rights group Equip for Equality is just the latest in a string of critical findings by outside groups.

Injustice Watch previously reported on similar findings by a committee convened by Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans and a 2021 report on the facility’s alleged failure to provide special education services during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Given the long-standing, serious, and pervasive problems identified in this report … and the profound impact they have had on the youth committed there, broader systemic reforms are essential,” concluded the authors of the most recent probe.

“The JTDC is perfectly situated to provide critical services to help steer these youth away from further court-involvement and into productive lives in the community. Tragically, not only is it failing in this regard, but it is often making this problem worse.”

Evans, whose office oversees the juvenile jail, and Superintendent Leonard Dixon declined requests to be interviewed.

But in a written response, Dixon said the report “is replete with gross misrepresentations, defamatory statements, and unsupported legal conclusions,” and he called it “an exercise in sensationalism.”

He criticized the nonprofit for failing to provide names of individual residents to jail officials or reporting specific allegations of abuse to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Dixon also said the report’s authors failed to understand “the role of detention in our complex criminal justice system” and said the JTDC meets all state and national standards.

“The persistent and sustained reliance on misinformation as the basis of this report, even in the face of established and well-understood local and national standards, is disturbing at best,” Dixon said.

Services at juvenile jail lacking for youths with disabilities

A vast majority of the youths at the detention center are Black, and about half have learning disabilities or mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, according to the report. The detention center housed 161 youths awaiting trial every day on average during 14 months of the study, with an average length of stay of 34 days, county data shows.

The Equip for Equality report was drafted after 1,000 hours of research, including seven site visits, the review of reams of available records, and interviews with more than a dozen staffers and 30 teens residing there.

The investigation centered on the JTDC and Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School, located inside the detention center, and how both failed to provide adequate special education services for youths in custody with learning disabilities.

“NBJ violates federal and state special education laws by ignoring mandated timelines, not providing services based on students’ individual needs, and, at times, not providing any services at all,” the report concludes. “This results in critical missed educational opportunities for students who are often excluded from school and in desperate need of educational services to prevent them from cycling in and out of the criminal system.”

The school’s principal, Leonard Harris, and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez also declined to be interviewed.

But in a letter shared with Injustice Watch, four top CPS officials, including Stephanie Jones, head of the district’s special education office, said the report “contains several inaccurate statements” and “fails to accurately characterize the student experience at NBJ and the support that CPS provides to NBJ’s student population.”

The Equip For Equality investigators found that the school lacked the professional support staff to serve special education students, and some classes lacked a special education co-teacher.

In their response letter, CPS officials said the school “currently has no teacher vacancies” and denies letting some special education students fall through the cracks. But investigators stand by their findings and observations, said Rachel Shapiro, a managing attorney at Equip for Equality and the report’s primary author.

“They can say until they’re blue in the face that there are sufficient teachers in the building, and they might’ve hired a sufficient number of teachers. But the fact is we were there, and this is what we saw,” Shapiro said.

‘Ain’t no snitchin’ on the Rovers’

The report says the JTDC failed to keep adequate records of incidents involving “excessive confinement and dangerous physical restraint practices.”

Following interviews with teens and staff and a review of available records, lawyers with Equip for Equality accused the detention center’s “rapid response team” for behavioral crises — known to youths and staff as “Rovers” — of using excessive physical restraint.

Illinois law limits physical restraint to times when “the student’s behavior presents an imminent danger of serious physical harm to the student or to others.” But one teacher interviewed said Rovers will restrain youths “if a kid is getting loud and rowdy and told to stop and not even fighting,” according to the report.

Youths in custody said they witnessed “restraints that were unsafe and entirely inhumane,” some of which caused severe injuries, including broken bones, “busted” eyes, and in one case a seizure. The detention center has a grievance process for youths in custody to report excessive physical restraint, but some said they were afraid to complain about the Rovers.

“As one youth stated, ‘ain’t no snitchin’ on the Rovers,’” the report states.

Rovers are required to fill out incident reports each time they physically restrain a youth in custody. Lawyers with Equip for Equality said they reviewed more than 500 incident reports and found them lacking critical information, such as the type of restraint used, the length of the restraint, and detailed descriptions of injuries happening during the incident.

The report also includes details about an unsanctioned practice at the detention center known to the youths in custody as “sitting on the wall.”

According to the report, detained youths who break the rules enough times are placed on a “behavior modification plan” and moved to one of two disciplinary pods. Detained youths sleep, eat, and go to school in their pods under tight supervision.

And for several hours of the day, including during school instruction time, detained youths in the disciplinary pods said staff ordered them to sit silently in a chair with a desk along the wall outside their cells until they earn enough good behavior points to “get off the wall,” which could take up to 15 days.

Youths in custody “consistently identified” sitting on the wall as commonplace at the detention center. “I sit on the wall all day, hearing the clock tick, ready to tip off,” reported one detained youth who recently attempted suicide, according to the report.

“I feel like they treat us like dogs,” said another youth about their time in the disciplinary pods.

Lawyers with Equip for Equality said they witnessed the practice during their site visits. In one of their visits, eight teens were in a computer class with “no computers, no board, no technology, and no live instruction.”

“The students sat in front of their cells ‘on the wall’ looking at each other’s backs. Plastic chairs were turned on their sides and used as desks,” according to the report.

Yet investigators couldn’t find records on the practice at the detention center.

“Nothing is written in the resident handbook or JTDC policies about being placed ‘on the wall,’” according to the report.

In his response letter, Dixon confirmed the reports from detained youths about staff ordering them to “sit on the wall” but said the phrase is a colloquialism. “The resident is in a chair and desk, separated from the rest of the residents as an alternative to confinement while they are working on their (behavior modification) plan.”

“Also, 15 days is rare,” Dixon added.

The report calls on Evans and Dixon to collect more detailed information about all physical restraint incidents, ban prone restraints, provide “post-incident stress debriefs” for all youths who were physically restrained, mandate “the use of body cameras during all restraint incidents from start to finish,” and “notify parents/guardians no more than two days after an incident of physical restraint that they may request a meeting to discuss the incident.”

Through a spokesperson, Evans said he ordered “intensive training on the appropriate use of force” for all Rovers by April 15 and ordered Dixon to submit a report on “all use of restraints and use of force” to his office.

“Too little, too late,” Shapiro said. “It does not address the injustice that has already been committed against youth who were previously or are currently experiencing rights violations.”

Type of work:

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...

Kelly Garcia is a reporter at Injustice Watch. She previously worked at the Chicago Reader, where she wrote about news and politics. In 2022, the Chicago Journalists Association named her Chicago’s Emerging...