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posted: 8/13/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: St. Charles prison must be safe for all teens

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  • Photo courtesy of John Howard Association of Illinois  Bunk beds that were deemed dangerous because of the numerous locations to tie off at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles.

    Photo courtesy of John Howard Association of Illinois Bunk beds that were deemed dangerous because of the numerous locations to tie off at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles.

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

If you knew or had been told something in your house wasn't safe for your children, would you wait nearly three years to have it fixed? If you knew, for instance, your baby's crib slats weren't safe and could kill your child, would you wait?

Of course not. You'd do all in your power to find the funds and get the crib replaced. You might even get rid of the crib before you could afford to replace it and try to find some other temporary bedding for your child.

But that's not what our state officials did on our behalf.

In September of 2009, a troubled 16-year-old boy used a bed frame to kill himself at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles. In September of 2009, if not long before, state officials who are charged with caring for the incarcerated teens knew they had lethal beds in their midst. It wasn't until this April, when the prison watchdog John Howard Association inspected the St. Charles facility again, did they find, finally, that the dangerous beds had been removed and replaced with ones designed so that troubled people can't use them to harm themselves or others.

The story of the bad beds in St. Charles is yet another example of all that is wrong with a state in financial crisis, bogged down in bureaucracy.

The Daily Herald reported in November of 2009, two months after the suicide, that $71,000 in "emergency" funds were listed on a state website as being spent to replace the beds.

What happened between November 2009 and April of this year?

In May 2011, the John Howard Association reported that some beds had been replaced. But, the group said, the dangerous beds still existed in the very cells where youth are held while they are under suicide watch. The money was there; the expenditure made. What took so long?

The watchdog report issued last week from a John Howard inspection in April is more hopeful.

All of the troubled teens were in cottages with safety beds and furniture. Interactions between staff and teens were praised for being "casual and positive."

But the Illinois Youth Center and the rest of the state's facilities continue to deteriorate as the state remains months behind in paying its bills.

"The facility is in desperate need of repair," the latest report says.

Illinois officials have designated $5 million for repairs and upgrades at the St. Charles center, which is expected to take in more teens from a facility in Joliet targeted for closure.

Union officials have said they worry the increase in teens in St. Charles could lead to more violence.

We worry too. Thankfully, the beds now are safe, but we must ask again: Why did it take nearly three years after the funds were allocated for all the dangerous beds to be removed? Our officials must find a way to make sure the children in our care remain safe. No matter who they are or what they did, they are children in our care. And care we must, as if they are our own.

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