State agrees to improve conditions at youth prisons

ACLU submitted proposal to judge

By Christopher Wills
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The state of Illinois has agreed to improve conditions at youth prisons under a settlement that officials hope will avert a legal battle if a judge agrees to the deal.

The settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois doesn’t spell out exactly what would be done to correct such problems as violence, limited educational opportunities and inadequate mental health care. Instead, it proposes that independent investigators review procedures and present a plan within six months.

Also under the proposal, the Department of Juvenile Justice would change its practice of throwing children into solitary confinement for long periods and keeping inmates behind bars after they’re supposed to be released because the state has nowhere to send them.

The ACLU submitted the proposed settlement Wednesday at the same time it filed a federal class-action lawsuit. A judge would then review the deal and decide whether to accept it.

The department houses about 1,000 children and teenagers. Nearly 70 percent of them are nonviolent offenders or former prisoners who were sent back for technical violations of their parole, according to the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group.

The association and other independent groups say the youths often can’t get a decent education. Classes are often canceled because teachers aren’t available, the John Howard Association reports, and the agency went a full year without an administrator to oversee schooling. Special education is limited, although the ACLU says nearly half the inmates need it.

Mental health is a similar story. About two-thirds of youths at state facilities face some kind of mental illness, but the Department of Juvenile Justice lacks staff to treat them. For instance, services at the Kewanee prison, which focuses on youths with mental problems, were cut by 75 percent last year, the John Howard Association found.

The ACLU lawsuit alleges that violence among inmates is a frequent problem, as is abuse by the staff. It does not provide any examples or statistics to support that, and Schwartz said he didn’t have any figures available.

Watchdog groups criticize the department’s practice of putting inmates in “confinement” — which means solitary confinement without any activities, including classroom work — for non-violent offenses. The ACLU lawsuit says youths can be kept in confinement for weeks or, at one facility, up to three months.