In Winnebago County, teenagers in the juvenile detention center had their water shut off for hours “as a precaution to disruptive behavior.”
In Cook County, children as young as age 13 who come into the detention center are inappropriately strip searched.
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In Knox County’s Mary Davis Home, young people are confined to their cells for 24 hours as a disciplinary measure.
These are all violations of Illinois’ minimum standards for juvenile detention centers, where children age 10 and older accused of crimes can be held while awaiting trial.
Last year, just four of the 16 county-run detention centers throughout the state were in full compliance with state standards. So far this year, two out of eight inspected juvenile jails have been found compliant.
The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, which conducts the annual inspections, found numerous problems, including detention centers improperly confining kids to their rooms, failing to provide proper clothing or bedding, conducting unnecessary strip searches, and providing insufficient mental health services and school instruction for youths.
The reports offer a glimpse into the conditions inside the juvenile jails, which otherwise remain hidden from public view, and show how the well-documented problems inside the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center — the state’s largest juvenile jail — also persist in smaller, downstate juvenile detention centers. The repeat violations from last year to this year in many of the counties highlight the state’s lack of authority to force changes at the detention centers, which fall under the jurisdiction of each county’s circuit court.
“We’re talking about a vulnerable group of young people who don’t necessarily have the experience or wherewithal or maturity to self-advocate and to know what the law is and how to access it,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, an independent prison monitoring group. “So we must be vigilant in protecting those rights for them. And having standards that then cannot be enforced does not go nearly far enough in our ability to protect those youth.”
The IDJJ established minimum standards for county-run juvenile detention centers more than 40 years ago with a focus on the physical condition of the facilities. In 2021, the standards were updated for the first time in three decades to include requirements related to the quality of youths’ care, including disciplinary practices, education, and medical care.
Though empowered by state law to establish standards and monitor for compliance, IDJJ has no jurisdiction over the county-run juvenile detention centers.
“We offer technical assistance and do follow-up visits if a facility is well out of compliance,” said John Albright, the department’s chief of performance and innovation. “But there’s no formal mechanism for us to have oversight of a county facility or hold a county facility accountable if they’re out of compliance.”
Last year, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, which is part of the Illinois Supreme Court and reimburses counties for juvenile detention staffing costs, established its own set of standards and began inspecting county juvenile jails.
AOIC inspectors found five detention centers were in full compliance with the agency’s standards last year. Two detention centers have not yet been inspected, and the rest were given corrective action plans to come into compliance. The state supreme court is required to withhold funds for detention centers that still fail to meet AOIC’s standards after 90 days’ written notice.
In an interview with Injustice Watch, Mark Bronke, who oversees AOIC’s new juvenile detention unit, said the aim is to work collaboratively with county detention centers to improve conditions.
“The expectation is we bring those noncompliances to their attention, and it’s their responsibility then to come up with an action plan to correct those things to come into compliance,” he said. “Some of them have been easily correctable things, and others may take a little bit of time.”
Repeated problems aren’t being fixed
In 2022, IDJJ officials described the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center in Benton, Illinois, as “a facility in crisis.” At the time of the inspection, only 15 youths were detained at the facility, but officials said the center still didn’t have enough staff, leading to youths spending much of the day in their rooms. Officials found young people hadn’t had access to the gym, outdoor recreation area or classrooms since 2020, and were only allowed to shower every other day.
When officials returned to the detention center in January for a follow-up visit, the facility had hired four additional full-time employees and increased the starting salary by $15,000 to boost recruitment. Staff had begun offering daily showers and allowing youths to participate in group activities at the gym, though some youths reported disruption to their activities because of “consequences or staffing levels.”
But officials said significantly more staff were needed to correct the areas of noncompliance. They noted the facility still did not have a mental health professional; did not have trained dietary staff to make and serve meals; and had not designated a PREA coordinator, who would ensure compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which aims to curb sexual assault of people in correctional facilities.
State officials also learned of an incident that happened five months after their first inspection in which a county sheriff’s deputy who was responding to an incident at the center broke a youth’s arm. It wasn’t clear to the inspector whether an internal review was conducted because there was no documentation, and the cameras weren’t working at the time of the incident.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Franklin County on behalf of detained youths. In their complaint, they alleged other troubling conditions inside the facility, such as solitary confinement lasting hours or days; unsanitary rooms with leaks and mold; fluorescent lights in cells that are “never turned off, making day virtually indistinguishable from night;” and detention staff regularly shutting off the water as a disciplinary measure.
Alexis Picard, an attorney at the ACLU, said they filed the lawsuit to get “immediate intervention and immediate relief” for kids at the detention center.
In response to the complaint, the circuit court officials who oversee the detention center denied the allegations made by the ACLU. Calls and emails to Second Judicial Circuit Court Chief Judge Melissa Morgan and detention center acting superintendent LaVonda Porter went unreturned.
Chris Bonjean, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, said Franklin County is the only facility so far that has received a 90-day notice. He said the Franklin County Board approved Chief Judge Morgan’s request to “make substantial improvements to the facility” following the notice of noncompliance from AOIC.
At the Winnebago County Juvenile Detention Center in Rockford, state inspectors noted last year kids accused of repeat rule infractions could spend “multiple days” primarily confined to their rooms. One youth was assigned to long-term confinement for making an inappropriate comment, refusing to shower, and having too many sheets in his room — all “very low-level infractions,” the inspectors noted.
When state officials returned in June, they found youths were still being confined for minor infractions. And they also found new issues. Staff would sometimes shut off water for several hours “to prevent kids from flooding their rooms.” Youths noted shutting off the water in their neighbor’s cell would often affect their cell, as well, meaning they were being punished for their neighbor’s misbehavior.
Inspectors also found problems with the detention center’s point-based incentive system. State officials noted many of the incentives were items available to youths for free at other facilities, including books, playing cards, gym access, and snacks.
“Incentives should be provided that are in addition to, not a substitution for, those basic essentials for youth in locked facilities,” officials wrote.
Debbie Jarvis, the director of court services for the 17th Judicial Circuit Court, whose job includes overseeing the Winnebago County detention center, told Injustice Watch detention staff are no longer permitted to shut off water access and said they are making sure confinement is only used for major infractions.
In Cook County, every child who entered the detention center was being strip searched as a matter of course, state officials noted last year. The state standards allow for the practice only when there is an “individualized, reasonable suspicion” of contraband.
When inspectors returned in May, they found strip searches were still being conducted routinely. According to the report, contraband had been found on “zero occasions” during 1,203 strip searches over a seven-month period.
Mary Wisniewski, a spokesperson for Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans, said the detention center is working to install upgraded scanners “for improved search methods.”
Room confinement still an issue in Cook County — and statewide
One of the major issues IDJJ found in juvenile detention centers statewide is the use of extended room confinement — sometimes for 24 hours or more — as a punishment for misbehavior.
Under state standards, detention staff can only use room confinement as a “temporary response to behavior that threatens the safety of the youth or others.” It can’t be used for a fixed period of time or for more than four hours without administrators developing an individualized plan to address the behavior.
Room confinement has long been an issue at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
Last year, a committee convened by Evans criticized the JTDC for its “overreliance on room confinement” and noted “the harsh reality that JTDC youth are locked in their cells for most of the day, every day.” That report followed a 2019 report by the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center Advisory Board, a public body created by the county board, which called for the end of punitive room confinement at the jail. There have also been three reports from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a nonprofit brought in to evaluate the JTDC, urging the detention center to reduce its reliance on room confinement to control kids’ behavior.
But IDJJ officials found the practice of disciplinary room confinement is still widespread at the Cook County juvenile jail.
In the week before inspectors visited the JTDC in May, youths had been confined to their rooms for more than four hours 70 times, according to the report, many of those for a full day. The previous month, there were 160 punitive room confinements, 68 of which were for more than 18 hours. There were 198 kids detained at the JTDC at the time of the inspection.
In March, Evans’ office said he had implemented “best practices” that required the JTDC to record the number of disciplinary room confinements but said nothing about reducing the practice. Wisniewski, Evans’ spokesperson, said his office is in the process of “reviewing policy and developing procedures to ensure compliance” regarding room confinement. She did not make Evans or Leonard Dixon, the JTDC superintendent, available for an interview.
IDJJ found punitive room confinement was also a widespread practice at other detention centers across the state. In the McLean County Juvenile Detention Center in Normal, Illinois, a small number of youths were confined to their rooms for 12 to 24 hours per day. In LaSalle County, kids accused of serious infractions can be confined for 24 hours. In Will County, inspectors last year found instances in which young people were held in their rooms for up to 36 hours for infractions as minor as hiding a pencil in their sock or having a pencil and rap lyrics in their room.
“From a management perspective, (confinement) is the easiest way to deal with something they might consider a problem,” Vollen-Katz said. “But research and our experiences are also very clear on the damage isolation does to anybody who experiences it, with juveniles being particularly vulnerable to the impacts of it.”
In July, Gov. JB Pritzker signed a bill backed by the John Howard Association to expand the jurisdiction of the Office of the Independent Juvenile Ombudsman, which currently oversees the five youth prisons in Illinois, to include county-run juvenile detention centers. The ombudsman responds to youth grievances and acts as a resource to incarcerated youths and their families. The law will go into effect in 2025.
Vollen-Katz said she’s optimistic that multiple state agencies are looking more closely at juvenile detention centers than they have in the past.
“I think that more education of the public and policymakers will get more people looking at those reports and noting the issues, so that they can undertake advocacy in whatever way they think is appropriate and meaningful,” she said. “And the more of us that do that, hopefully, the louder we get, the more possibility for change there is.”