Cook County juvenile jail is locking kids, teens in their cells for most of the day, scathing review finds

The retired child psychologist Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans, named to head the committee that issued the report, criticizes Evans for not moving swiftly to make changes.

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Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans.

Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans appointed a committee to look into problems at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. More than a year later, he plans to name a new committee to look into how to implement changes the first committee recommended.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

In a scathing report, a group of juvenile justice experts says the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center — a five-story fortress on the West Side with courtrooms and a public school that houses as many as 175 youths — should be permanently shut down and replaced with smaller, community-based facilities focused on rehabilitation.

The report comes from a committee convened last year by Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans, whose office oversees the detention center, which is the country’s largest stand-alone juvenile jail. Evans asked the committee to evaluate procedures at the detention center, especially regarding how long youths are confined to their cells.

The committee found that the detention center, known as the JTDC, is “isolating and deprivational,” rather than rehabilitative. Most kids and teenagers there — the vast majority of those held there are Black — spend at least 13 hours a day locked in their small cells — including one hour when the facility is locked down during shift changes and from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day for what jail officials call “sleeping hours.” 

The committee noted that no healthy teenager sleeps during that stretch of time and said the jail’s staff often disciplines youths by confining them to their cells for several more hours on top of that.

“Semantics do not diminish the harsh reality that JTDC youth are locked in their cells for most of the day, every day,” the committee wrote. “No parent would be allowed to do this to their child.”

Evans received the committee’s report in May, but his office didn’t release it until Tuesday — a week after Injustice Watch obtained a copy and asked the chief judge’s office about it.

A spokeswoman for Evans said the chief judge is forming another committee to implement the recommendations but did not provide a full list of its members or respond to questions about when the work will begin or which recommendations the judge plans to follow.

Gene Griffin, a retired lawyer and child psychologist whom Evans picked to chair the committee that issued the new report, said he’s happy that Evans released the report but expressed concern that convening another committee would delay changes.

“I would much rather he actually be implementing some of the recommendations, as opposed to another committee to look at the recommendations,” Griffin said. “It’s good to be looking at these issues, but by appointing another committee, that doesn’t change anything for the kids in detention today. And our committee took a whole year, so this means another year of no changes until another committee report comes out? That would be disappointing.”

A room at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. A committee convened by Chief Judge Tim Evans found that conditions at the JTDC are “isolating and deprivational.”

A room at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. A committee convened by Chief Judge Timothy Evans found that conditions at the JTDC are “isolating and deprivational.”

Provided

Neither Evans nor Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle responded to questions about the report and whether the county plans to allocate money to build smaller juvenile detention facilities.

In a letter to Evans in May, Griffin called for JTDC Supt. Leonard Dixon’s firing, saying he should be replaced with someone “committed to transforming the JTDC from simply housing youth within its charge to safely developing youth competency.” 

In a written response to the committee’s report, Dixon wrote that he isn’t opposed to sending kids to smaller facilities. But he took issue with almost everything else in the report.

The committee interviewed currently and formerly detained youths and included comments from them in its report.

“There’s good staff and bad staff,” one told the committee. “Bad staff call you names, curse at you and throw things at you and hit you, and then say they were only playing around. When we’re in our rooms, some staff talk bad about us, but we can still hear them.”

“Staff will call off on weekends and holidays,” another said. “Summer is very short-staffed, so we almost never came out of our rooms.”

“Staff uses room confinement to control us,” another young person said. 

Evans convened the committee in April 2021 in response to a report by the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center Advisory Board, which called for the end of punitive room confinement at the jail. 

That followed reporting by the Chicago Reporter in 2018 that found that the use of punitive confinement had increased even as the detention center’s population had decreased, and three reports from the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Center for Children’s Law and Policy that urged the detention center to reduce its reliance on room confinement to control behavior.

The new report came to light as Evans, 79, faces two crucial elections. On Sept. 13, the county’s circuit judges will vote on whether to give Evans a record eighth term as chief judge, a position he’s had since 2001. On Nov. 8, voters will decide whether to retain Evans as a judge for another six-year term.

Carlos Ballesteros reports for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization.

Jonah Newman and Carlos Ballesteros report for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization.

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