Visions of Justice

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

2006 was filled with massive controversy at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (CCJTDC). The ACLU filed suit against the jail, claiming unsafe conditions and child abuse. They won the suit and a team of “experts” were brought in to oversee changes mandated by the settlement. There have been hundreds of articles and news stories in mainstream media about the conditions of the detention center, but none of them include the voices of those most affected by the conditions at the detention center: incarcerated youth.

The CCJTDC houses Illinois’ most vulnerable children. Our students are between the ages of 10 and 19 years and are either awaiting trial, awaiting sentencing, or serving time in jail. In preparation for this, the Justice issue of Area Chicago, we asked high school aged students in the detention center to contribute essays and art work in response to the question, “What is your vision of a more just juvenile detention center?”

Our students had much to say. Their responses are passionate, insightful and wise. Surely these youth are the experts on their own lives and experiences. They each come to us with their own histories of personal violence, trauma, and often very difficult past relationships with school. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, their stories and voices are not part of public dialogue about the detention center. We hope that these articles are a step toward engaging our students in changing the conditions in which they live. Although official recommendations have been issued for implementing changes at the detention center, much remains unclear about what it will take to make the institution a more fair and healthy place for those living and working there. One thing is clear: we cannot do this without the kids. Here’s what some of them had to say.

—An educator, Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School

What are my visions of a more fair juvenile justice system? Well, to start off, this place is not so bad. After spending three months in here, you get used to the place, I guess. The best way to make it through this place is to respect the staff and get cool with them and stay to yourself most of the time. As far as things that can make this place a fairer environment… there can definitely be some work done.

We need better medical care, better food, better hygiene products, we need therapeutic groups and groups to prepare us on when we leave and enter back into freedom so that we are able to stay out there. We shouldn’t be wearing mini-prison outfits, we need to be treated better by staff, we should be able to talk during meal times as long as conversations are kept appropriate, and we need a later bed time and better education programs. These are just a few that need to be changed to make this detention center fair for both staff and residents.

Better medical care is most important to us because we need our medicine that is prescribed for us for whatever reasons we are taking them. We are not being attended to by the medical staff, as we need to be. For example, residents get by with not taking their medicine and can easily get away with passing pills to other residents. Also, when there is a medical problem with a resident on section it takes more time for the nurses to come to section than for the resident to just walk to medical. Waiting for a nurse is not always safe depending on the condition they are in.

Better food would be nice in this place also. Most of the time we get our carts with our food on them fifteen minutes later than the time we’re supposed to. By that time our food is already cold and does not taste right. There have been a few times where a resident found a rollie-pollie in her food. Ew!

Another necessity is better hygiene products. The county provides a bar of Dial soap, baby tearless shampoo, lotion, grease, a brush, a comb, a roll on deodorant that leaks down your arm when you put it on your armpit and also smells like vinegar, and that is all. Our supplies get changed three times a week along with our clothing. To me, this is very unsanitary. I am sure the rest of the residents would agree.

We definitely need to get rid of these jumpsuits, which we have to wear at all times except when we sleep. Teen girls these days are psychologically supposed to be figuring out how we want to present ourselves. Being dressed like adult prisoners gives us the impression that we are waiting here until we get to the Department of Corrections or the state penitentiary. I think that we should be able to wear our t-shirts, shorts, and sweatpants. They’re much more comfortable and look less like prison clothing.

In order to make it through this place without any problems we have to respect staff, but how is that possible when they disrespect us? Most staff come in wearing their mood and unfortunately, when they are in a bad mood it gets taken out on us with cuss words and locked doors. That doesn’t apply to all staff. There are staff who really act as counselors and try to help you through whatever problems you have. If you need something done some of the staff will go out of their way to make sure it gets done. For example, for programs we are in, such as Christmas caroling, staff on section will let us listen to the music and practice singing our songs. On the day of the programs, they’ll even do our hair and make sure we look like young ladies. It helps to have more encouragement—not less!

Having group sessions would be very beneficial for us also. We need groups to help us think about what we need to do to prevent us from coming back in here. More than half of us in here are old timers (meaning we’ve left jail and come back). I’m sure with daily groups on our everyday life and how to become young ladies, there would be a decrease in how many of us old timers come back again. Some girls don’t have people to tell them how to live a healthy productive life and to make something of themselves. If staff acted like the counselors that their shirts and ID cards define them as, all of us would be able to have a chance to be counseled and an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

—17-year-old girl, CCJTDC


In order to have a successful life, I need staff to help and respect me. I need staff to come to work focused on helping us and being fair. I wish they would leave their personal problems at home. We don’t have anything to do with their personal problems.

Also, we need our families. The juvenile center could change visitation so that our families can visit more often. It shouldn’t matter who is a family member, as long as our parents give permission for them to visit. Friends of our families cannot visit us as the rules are now. Seeing my family calms me down and helps me stop stressing. We need our families.

We also need better hygiene. The soap in here makes us itch.

We are only able to change clothes three times per week. This is not fair.

—17-year-old girl, CCJTDC


My vision would be that the Probation Officers come to check on us every other day to see how we are doing. Also, I think if the crime isn’t that bad we should go home after a week or a couple of days. Some people are here for months or even years awaiting trial. If we have a violation of probation or a minor crime then we should be able to go home after a couple of days.

We should have better health care. The doctors should listen to us and if it’s an emergency we should go to the hospital. We should be able to have longer phone calls.

We should have better hygiene products and better clothes. The staff should talk to us more and should treat us equally. I’m surprised they don’t call us inmates. They might as well because we look like inmates in these prison uniforms.

—16-year-old girl, CCJTDC


Do you think the CCJTDC is fair?

I was once asked that question and my answer is “No!” Cook County Juvenile [Temporary] Detention Center is not fair to those who are incarcerated here. The fact is ccjtdc is not a place you would want to be. Obviously it is a place of punishment, but what is fair punishment? Is fair punishment six days out of the week eating uncooked, cold, and disgusting food that is sloppily given to us as if we were not human beings? Often punishment at ccjtdc consist of counselors who think they have the right to deny residents such as myself the respect that we work hard for each and every day.

Who is in charge? It is as if the government is experimenting on us. It seems like nothing is ever consistent here. Things change here every single day. There are only three female living units and I’ve seen residents travel back and forth from all three in less than two weeks. ccjtdc is an unstable environment for us to live in, and it’s not fair. We all have to suffer.

—16-year-old girl, CCJTDC

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