Adult-style prisons are the wrong approach for helping juveniles

  • Julie Biehl

    Julie Biehl

By Julie L. Biehl
Guest columnist
Posted4/15/2020 1:00 AM

Decades ago, someone in state government decided the state's prisons for teenagers should be called "Youth Centers" -- like they were places where teens play basketball, eat snacks and watch a Disney movie.

In reality, the so-called "youth centers" locked each youth behind bars in a small cell with concrete floor, a thin mattress, a metal toilet in the corner and often little to no daylight. Phone calls and visits with family members were rare.


That's where these children were supposed to be rehabilitated, but any rehabilitation was achieved in spite of, not because of, these harsh conditions.

When state leaders removed the administration of juvenile prisons from the Department of Corrections and made the new Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice a stand-alone agency in 2006, the intent was to make these centers less like traditional adult prisons and transform them into settings where staff understood adolescent development and rehabilitation could succeed. Some of those efforts did work, but there is a growing recognition among juvenile justice experts that rehabilitation works even better when youths never see the inside of a prison and instead receive counseling, mentoring and mental health treatment in their home communities.

Diverting youth from the system reduced the average daily population of juvenile prisons from about 1,500 in 2006 to fewer than 200 today. By closing three juvenile prisons, the system contracted from eight half-empty prisons to five prisons but still with more than two-thirds of the bed space empty.

But make no mistake about it, today's "Illinois youth centers" remain prisons for kids.

Judges have sent these youths to prison because they did not or could not find community-based alternatives where young people would receive needed rehabilitative services and not be a risk to harm the public or themselves.

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More than nine of 10 youths in our prisons have been diagnosed with at least one mental illness. They have serious problems that go far beyond the typical moody teenagers.

Two-thirds of them have three or more mental disorders, which include post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and substance use disorder. In addition, the quality and frequency of treatment for these mental disorders in state prisons is uneven and inadequate.

"For those who do receive high-quality treatment, recovery is difficult, because they are spending their days and nights locked in stark prison cells either alone or surrounded by other youth with behavior issues," as explained in Harm Instead of Healing: Imprisoning Youth with Mental Illness, a recent research report issued by the Children and Family Justice Center. "In short, recovery from mental illness is fundamentally incompatible with an adult-prison model where youth are confined for months or years in large prisons surrounded by barbed wire."

Although IDJJ leadership has improved mental health treatment over the last decade, the report makes clear that Illinois' juvenile prisons have essentially become psychiatric hospitals and not very good ones because they don't provide adequate treatment for youths with mental disorders. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is even worse today for incarcerated youths with mental conditions. Family visits have been terminated for sound public health reasons, and it is likely that therapeutic programming has been reduced.


What to do next?

• The state should begin planning to transition away from use of the adult prison model for youths and find other uses for the five state youth prisons in Chicago, Harrisburg, St. Charles, Warrenville and Pere Marquette near Alton. These prisons have the capacity for 920 youths, but more than two-thirds of the beds are empty.

• Instead of spending on empty beds, the state should invest more in community mental health programs that offer quality care to children and adolescents.

• By improving the state's community mental system, juvenile court judges will have more alternatives and be able to divert more young people with mental illness from IDDJ. A further decrease in the number of youths sent to IDJJ will allow the state to operate smaller and truly rehabilitative facilities throughout the state.

Many of the teens in the prisons today have mental health problems related to traumatic experiences as victims of crimes or of witnessing violence in their homes and neighborhoods. The best way to help them cope with the trauma and become healthy adults is to deliver good quality mental health services outside of prison cells.

• Julie L. Biehl is Director of the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

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