More safety for troubled teens a must, now

Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted7/15/2011 3:00 AM

Nearly two years ago, a 16-year-old boy used a bed railing and other materials to kill himself while he was in custody in a medium-security youth prison in St. Charles.

He was supposed to be under the care and protection of the state. The state failed him.

Nearly two years later, it borders on criminal that safer, "safety beds" have not yet been installed to replace all the dangerous beds at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles. This is just one example of the real human cost of the state's financial crisis.

Some of the dangerous beds have been removed and replaced with safety beds that have rounded corners and platforms that make their use for suicide or escape far less possible. And for that, state officials are to be commended.

But the John Howard Association, which monitors prison operations and advocates for those incarcerated, toured the St. Charles facility again in May and found many dangerous beds still in place in the very cells where youth are held while they're on suicide watch as well as in the general population units. John Howard employees also found crumbling buildings, filthy showers and overflowing garbage cans. They learned that young prisoners who are injured or ill are not being given access to school or outdoor activities. Inadequate staffing and funding prevent those incarcerated from taking advantage of the beautiful youth center grounds. Staffing ratios reported lead us to believe it's nothing short of miraculous that more dangerous incidents haven't occurred.

The good news, the association reports, is the recent appointment of a new youth home superintendent, David Hicks, whose background is in substance abuse and mental health treatment for children. Intake processes also have been streamlined. Perhaps the best news of all is that a bid has been accepted to replace all beds in the juvenile justice department with the safer, slab beds. Still, the association notes, "an approved bid does not guarantee the installations will actually occur, due to long waiting periods and bureaucratic roadblocks."

Only 48 slab beds are in place at the St. Charles prison that houses 259 boys. None of those slab beds are in the confinement unit where boys are placed when they misbehave or are considered suicidal. The John Howard Association report calls that finding "absolutely unacceptable." We could not agree more.

The situation at the youth center in St Charles is a tragedy waiting to happen. We understand money is tight in Illinois and that many worthwhile programs that help people must go without. But Gov. Pat Quinn, state legislators and juvenile justice officials must re-prioritize now, get safe beds in St. Charles and all youth facilities and improve safety. Protecting troubled teens, who have no other real guardian, simply must be one of the state's, and our community's, highest priorities.