Jail tour shows troubled kids where poor choices can lead
A dozen parents smile at each other as they file into the lobby of the DuPage County jail. It feels like the opening minutes of a school field trip, when everyone is eager for a little diversion and excited about the adventure ahead.
Deputy John Mondelli puts a quick end to the joviality.
He pulls the parents aside and warns them the next three hours won't be easy. He intends to be tough on their children, using rough language and an even rougher demeanor. He won't coddle the teens, won't tolerate rudeness and - most importantly -won't put up with parental interference.
"I do this all the time, and I don't do it with parents staring over my shoulder," he says. "Is everybody OK with that?"
Karen Burke of Addison is the only one to speak up.
"I think they need to know what the real world will be like for them if they don't change," she says.
The rest of the parents nod. They all share the same hope on this night. They have turned to Mondelli and his three-hour jail tour in an effort to pull their kids off dangerous paths lined with drugs, alcohol and violence.
Mondelli tells the parents he cannot solve their family problems or their children's addictions. The best he can do, he says, is show the teens the horrors of jail life and hope it scares them so much they would do anything not to come back.
And for some of them, it will be enough. For others, well, they can't say Mondelli didn't warn them.
Mondelli does 35 to 40 jail tours a month. They vary in tone and scope, but always offer a less-than-glamorous look at incarceration.
Shortly after taking office five years ago, Sheriff John Zaruba began offering jail tours to the public as a way of scaring troubled kids straight. Although officials still are analyzing the effectiveness of the tours, a similar program that offers jail tours to first-time youth offenders has yielded a repeat-offender rate of only 15 percent to 25 percent.
Tonight's tour is being offered through Help End Addiction with Love (HEAL), a Glendale Heights-based support network for families struggling with drug addiction. The 17 adolescents on the tour range from ages 12 to 19 and have checkered pasts.
They drink, do drugs, steal and get in fights. One of the 12-year-old boys was caught brandishing a knife at school.
Mondelli and his partner, Melissa Pekich, ask the youngsters to stand up and say why they came on the tour. The first picked is a 13-year-old boy named Rob, who has been smirking and rolling his eyes since the program began five minutes earlier.
"I don't know," he says. "My mom made me come."
Mondelli makes the boy stand up and remove his baseball cap. He barks at the 13-year-old, telling him not to slouch or mumble when he talks. The deputy makes the teen keep his arms behind his back as if he were handcuffed.
"But what did you do?" Mondelli asks.
"Nothing," Rob responds. "I don't know what you want me to say."
"Do you want me to spell it out for you?" the deputy asks crossly. "What choice did you make that got you here tonight?"
The boy shrugs and again says nothing. Mondelli asks the pony-tailed girl sitting next to Rob if she believes him. The girl, a 14-year-old who has been caught drinking vodka, says she does not. Mondelli gives the boy another chance to answer.
"My mom made me come here," Rob says. "I didn't want to come."
Rob sits down without being granted permission, and Pekich orders him to stand until everyone is done sharing his or her stories. After a few teens describe their battles with drugs and alcohol, the deputy again asks Rob why he's there.
"I guess I've gotten into trouble a few times," he says, before admitting to drug use, bad behavior and curfew violations.
"Well, Rob, thank you for being honest 10 minutes later," Mondelli says, not letting the teen sit back down.
Mondelli and Pekich will maintain their no-nonsense demeanor throughout the tour. They make the teens walk in a straight line, sniping at them when they don't pay attention or giggle.
As the teens pass the visiting areas and gymnasium, they seem unimpressed and bored. Everything changes when Mondelli takes them into the administrative segregation section. Generally, this houses the problem prisoners who have to be set apart from the rest of the jail population. From the hallway, the kids can hear the inmates yelling and pounding on windows.
They are taken inside a padded cell, where urine and other bodily fluids cover the floors and walls. Some teens cover mouths rather than breathe the rancid air. Pekich tells them to put their arms down.
Outside, an inmate - one of the 839 in the jail on this particular night - pounds on a plastic window and makes suggestive remarks.
The parents stand outside the segregation area, unable to see the inmate but able to hear him clearly. They shift their weight nervously from foot to foot and give each other worried looks. One mother turns around with tears in her eyes and mouths, "Oh, my God," to the stranger behind her.
"If this doesn't scare them, nothing will," says Danny McKirchy, whose son is battling a heroin addiction.
The teens move on to the general population, where the inmates continue to shout at them. Mondelli invites one of them to speak to the group.
A 23-year-old prisoner asks all the kids' for their ages and tells them he wasn't much older than them when he entered the jail four years ago. He then says he couldn't care less what happens to any of them.
"I am not your parent, your brother, your sister or your (expletive) friend," the inmate says. "This is my life. This is not scared straight. I don't give a (expletive) if you're scared or straight."
The man describes his daily routine to the teens. He never goes outside, eats "rank" food and fights for control of the television and his sanity every day.
He misses his brother's college graduation, family reunions, hugging his mother, steak and McDonald's milkshakes. He doesn't think he'll see a star-filled sky ever again.
As he talks, 15-year-old Stella Burke looks at the ground. The inmate assumes it's a gesture of indifference. He kneels in front of her and shows her the scars on his hands, which he says are the result of jail fights.
This is what my life has become, he tells her. He was once like her, he says. He grew up in Wheaton, with a family that loved him and repeatedly warned him he was on the wrong path.
The inmate says he made wrong choices and will spend the rest of his life in jail because of it. He predicts the same thing could happen to Stella.
"You are one step away from being where I am today," he says. "If you don't think about what you're doing, you will be."
Later in the tour, Stella raises her hand and tries to tell Mondelli she wasn't being disrespectful to the inmate. She insists she actually was moved by what the man was saying before he singled her out.
Mondelli doesn't allow the teen to finish her excuse.
"Why are you trying to justify it to me?" he asks, drawing a furious look from Stella.
Stella has been obstinate the entire evening. At the tour's start, she angered Mondelli and Pekich by laughing and talking back. The deputies made her stand with her nose against the wall for five minutes.
The punishment did little to deter her feistiness for the next three hours. She repeatedly attempted to engage Mondelli in verbal sparring matches, though he resisted the bait. She slouched and acted petulant when he gave her an order.
Mondelli ends the tour a little softer then he began it. He tells the teens people care about them and promises to do anything within his power to keep them out of trouble.
Then he sends them out with a farewell as stern as his jail.
"All I have to say to you is good luck," he says. "And you're going to need it."
Somewhere along the line, Mondelli has gotten to Stella. She seems genuinely moved by the experience. Her brother is a drug addict, and she has a drinking problem. She doesn't think either of them would survive jail.
"I think I'd probably commit suicide the first day," she says. "I've seen enough that I don't ever want to go there."
Outside the jail, the parents stand on the sidewalk raving about the tour. It was an intense - and necessary - experience, they say, unlike any field trip they have ever taken with their children.
They all hope their child has emerged with a new attitude toward drugs, alcohol and other destructive behavior.
"If we save one out of the 17, it was worth it," Danny McKirchy says.
Answers HEAL President Theresa Blasucci, whose 16-year-old son is a heroin addict: "And we all hope that one is our own."