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My juvenile confinement horror: What it's like inside Chicago's infamous jail for kids

I wanted to mentor some of the toughest teens in Chicago. So I joined them in a frightening lockup they called home


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Mark Dostert
January 5, 2015 4:58PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago's Other Side"

Monday morning I steer my Toyota Tercel off Joe and Beth’s gravel driveway onto a double-lane road splitting cornfields and dairy farms. Knowing that I won’t see this landscape again this afternoon or tomorrow or the next day, the barns and silos become beautiful. In minutes, I’m envying Wisconsinites on either side of me, whizzing down Interstate 94 to jobs in corporate Chicago, where they won’t have to invade someone’s living quarters, sleuthing for Flic-My-Bics or weed or handcrafted weapons.

At the jail, a supervisor leans across the front desk like a sage grandfather and says, “We’re gonna put you with Mr. Walton.” His expression says I’m a Greenhorn I Have No Clue What I’m Doing is stamped across my forehead. Three days of burgers and steaks supplemented with tennis and Frisbee in rural Wisconsin haven’t eased the dread as my father hoped.

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The supervisor and I hardly speak on the elevator ride to the third floor where there is no new paint job or other renovations from the tens of millions of dollars. He leads me over the same thin beige floor tiles, faint seams separating them. Darker bricks still compose the corridor’s inner walls, floor to ceiling. To my right, the outer wall’s upper half is glass, so I can see the barren concrete courtyard, seemingly the size of a football field, opposite the cellblocks. Twenty paces down the hallway, the inner wall to my left turns to floor-to-ceiling glass, so I can see into empty cellblock G. The supervisor opens the steel-framed glass door with his master key, and I step in behind him for my first full entry into a cellblock. The desk, or console, remains to the left of the door, squarely in the cellblock’s middle. Twenty feet ahead stand eighteen cell doors, all brown steel-frames and most with Plexiglas windows. In the brick space between cells nine and ten, just below the ceiling, hangs a round wall clock staring at the console. A wall of real glass partitions off the block’s left end—the TV area. More bricks enclose the right end—the bathroom area. Familiar multi-colored plastic-coated fiberglass tables and chairs fill in the middle space common area, along with a battered green ping-pong table.

Walton, today’s 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. children’s attendant on 3G, saunters out of the TV area and the supervisor leaves. “Right now, all our residents are at school, except for room twelve. He’s in Confinement,” Attendant Walton begins without looking directly at me. Hair grays at his temples. He doesn’t tower over me like some trainees in orientation, but a voice booms from his burly chest, deeper and more ear grabbing than my voice. We face the eighteen-cell row and the clock centered between cells nine and ten. For the children’s attendant, time is everything.

The boy locked behind door twelve is asleep on an emerald mattress laid over the floor. Judging from his size, I’d say he’s fourteen or fifteen. Like a sponge against a mirror, his Afro top presses into the expansive, nearly door-length window. Attendant Walton explains that he committed a major rule violation and will remain there all day—Confinement. Time is a farce for this kid. He can’t see the clock even when awake.

Attendant Walton moves behind me and picks up a stationary book off the console along with a clear plastic board about the size of a kitchen cabinet door. His hands are puffy, like those I imagine would belong to an oilrig worker. Walton still hasn’t looked at me. Instead, his attention rivets on this tool of our trade—the plastic board—like a soldier marveling at a trusted sidearm cradled in his hand. Pasted to the see-through plastic rectangle are three columns of brass name tag holders.

“Let’s go back here, Mr. Dostert,” he motions toward the TV area past the half dozen tables with chairs hued like playground fixtures at McDonald’s. The sky blue, canary yellow, lime green, and candy apple red furniture seem Cook County’s apology for the living quarters’ orgy-of-beige color scheme. Walton and I ease down onto cushioned low-back armchairs at the rear of the TV area, positioned in front of the first cells. He sets the board on his chair arm. “Here’s all our residents right here.”

Slid inside most of the nameplates are strips of tag-board, each with a name written in blue or black ink, a cell number, and an admission date to the facility, be it last week or last year.

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The plastic board is an oversized roll sheet. Walton taps a cigar-thick finger near the first name cards in the third column, numbers nineteen and higher, “We have eighteen rooms. So these residents right here are overflows.” Block 3G has more inmates than cells. Overflows sleep on cots.

Attendant Walton’s use of residents and rooms confuses me. Supervisor Hillard used the terms too, as did The Policy and Procedure Manual for Group Services, which no one instructed me to bring today and isn’t available here on 3G. It explains residents as: “children charged with committing a delinquent or criminal act, failing to appear for a court hearing, adjudicated pending disposition and/or placement, serving a disposition up to 30 days per offense or placed on a violation of probation pending hearing/disposition.”

Children sanitizes the more accurate labels—juveniles or inmates—that we’re instructed not to call the boys. The manual does likewise with its reference to fifty kids brawling simultaneously in the courtyard as a group disturbance, not a riot. Administration must think that pretending the boys’ legal predicaments aren’t dire alleviates this depressing reality—months and years of their childhoods warehoused away where they can’t change a television channel without sanction from one of us.

Sleeping in a room must not scar a boy’s soul compared to sleeping in a cell. Glancing into the rectangular brick-walled chambers, hardly wider than my arms’ span, I can’t deny that they are cells, damn it. And in cells live inmates.

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To remind us that cell twelve’s kid is in Confinement, a red tag with the letters CONF fills his slot. No one will let him out by accident. As if it’s none of my business, I don’t inquire about his Confinement-meriting offense. Confinement helps keep order, Attendant Walton explains. In the late 1960s Attendant Walton worked at the actual Audy Home, he informs me, where there were no cells in which to lock unruly kids—inmates slept on bunks.

Certain creased, dog-eared name cards include other capital-lettered codes. These designations aren’t removable, like the CONF tag. One penned in red is: AT.

“The residents who are ATs can’t be overflows. They have to be in a room,” Attendant Walton says, with his eyes on the board. All eight AT name cards occupy a slot somewhere between cells one and eighteen—none are overflows. A serious violation occurs if one bunks down on a cot.

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“What’s AT mean?”

“Automatic Transfer. They go to court at 26th and California.”

I’m not familiar with “26th and California” either and Attendant Walton doesn’t elaborate, but in college, I wondered how a Chicago street could be named California. Maybe a hundred years ago, this north-south thoroughfare marked the city’s western frontier, removed from its industrialized, polluted core. It was out there on California Street or Place or Boulevard where Chicagoans migrated for a fresh start. Currently, it’s where we forcibly relocate criminally accused adults to await trial pending life sentences and lethal injections. The Cook County Jail—dozens of dull, squared buildings—dominates multiple sides of the 26th Street and South California Avenue intersection. Ironic now is the name. The adult jail’s southwest part of town, with its currency exchanges dotted around deteriorating brownstones and multi-level wooden flats, hardly resembles Bodega Bay’s black sand beaches or Sonoma’s redwoods and wineries or even Los Angeles County’s ice plant–lined freeways winding into the San Gabriel Mountains. Eventually, I learn that an Illinois kid becomes an AT if charged with a felony while thirteen or older. When ATs turn seventeen (a legal adult in Illinois), they can no longer be housed with children at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. They must be incarcerated with men, because their court is prosecuting them as men, and thus they are transferred to the Cook County Jail. Right now, Attendant Walton only tells me about ATs and what pertains to us here on 3G—ATs must be in a room. I will learn more about Automatic Transfers on my own, like specific AT charges—First-Degree Murder, Aggravated Criminal Sexual Assault, Aggravated Vehicular Hijacking (“carjacking”), Armed Robbery With A Firearm, and narcotics or weapons possession within one thousand feet of a school or housing project.

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Attendant Walton next points to a CW tag on top of several other name tags. “These residents are Close Watches, so they can’t have a bed frame or any sheets in their room. And their room has to be right across from the console.” Walton touches a name tag with the CW label. “He’s got Dr. Jacobs thinking he wants to kill himself.”

It’s the confined boy, dead to the world in cell twelve. According to the roll board, his name is Calvin. When Calvin threatened suicide, Dr. Jacobs, our lone full-time mental health professional, deemed him a Close Watch and removed his bed sheets.

Calvin’s cell also contains no desk or chair or a bed frame for the mattress. His entire floor is exposed, save for what his mattress covers. Why might Calvin fume about suicide? Is this why he is still knocked out at nine in the morning? Is he too depressed to sit up and survey his world? I speculate about all the names on this plastic rectangle. How few know their fathers? Can any read at their grade level? Despite their obstacles, can I improve their life quality, their moral fiber, their self-esteem?

Trainer Walton doesn’t reference kids by name, but rather by their room numbers: “the resident in room twelve.” He says nothing about how to, as Assistant Superintendent Davis worded our mission, “make them better people.” On those terms, Attendant Walton could seem a bad attendant. Nearing his thirtieth year of attending children, tomorrow’s paycheck and an approaching pension may well be his primary motivation. I’m thankful though that he agreed to mentor me. If no veteran had, I might have no shadowing. My coworker would be flying solo with scant occasion to enlighten. Novice to the demands of monitoring and jailing, I could only watch like a dunce. The block might “go up,” that is “explode.” What I can’t understand is why Attendant Walton in all his age and experience, in the lull of this empty cellblock, isn’t unloading on me with everything he knows about each inmate—their positives, their negatives, their sore spots and soft spots, what I need to help them.

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“Want a mint?” Walton extends a foil-wrapped roll toward me. He pops one into his mouth. “I get bad breath working here.” Beside the interior decor, something else is constant from my volunteer days—the Audy Home smell. For me, whiffing it evokes a sterile, medicine-y hospital wing, yet somehow, a place of musty antiquation. Even with six hundred boys’ perspiration and carbon dioxide to mask it, the scent we suck into our mouths everywhere in the building reeks strongest on the residential floors. I take one of Attendant Walton’s mints. He sets aside the plastic board and opens the lined white paper journal—the logbook. He’s already penned the name of every 3G kid into two columns. After each name, he notes whether or not the boy is an AT, Close Watch, in Confinement, and if he is scheduled for court today. “Everything that happens on the unit, you write it right here.” Inspect the cells—log it in the logbook. The breakfast, lunch, or dinner cart arrives—log it in the logbook. Serve a meal—log it in the logbook. Resident returns to the block from court—log it in the logbook.

Cellblock life revolves around this logbook and plastic board. So far I’ve only seen one actual juvenile, slumbering Calvin in cell twelve and can’t fathom how a stationery book and sheet of plastic will help me “help the kids” or even help me foil them from mugging each other for apples and shoving cigarette lighters up their asses. With Jerome and Terry and Curtis, it was just the Bible, them, and me. Now all these objects exist between us— bolted cell doors, a logbook, a roll board with myriad tags and labels. I’m working with everything but the kids.

The console phone rings. Attendant Walton sends me from the TV area to answer it.

“3G, Mark.”

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“Actually, Mr. Dostert,” a supervisor says, “we call each other by last name here. Make sure the residents do too.”

Attendant Walton has been addressing me as Mr. Dostert, but it hasn’t occurred to me to call myself Mr. Dostert. I hadn’t picked up on this practice when the front desk supervisor called Attendant Walton “‘Mr. Walton.’” Administration must think that “‘Mister’” dignifies better than “‘Attendant,’” given that we aren’t certified as law enforcement officers like juvenile facility workers in other counties and states. Chaplain Rick never called me Mr. Dostert, nor had my Bible study subjects. I was Mark to them. Yet another hedge between the kids and me is my name. I didn’t take this job to be a Mister to anyone.

At noon, 3G’s 8 a.m.–4 p.m. attendant, a wiry and Jheri curl headed man, appears in the hallway with the other twenty-two residents, who unlike Calvin, are not in Confinement.

They’re home from morning school. Whether indicted for first-degree murder or spray-painting gang trademark pitchforks on the dumpster behind a Walgreens at 79th and Damen Avenue, federal law blesses any jailed young person with an education twelve months a year, so long as you behave on your cellblock and don’t land in Confinement like Calvin.

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Sitting with Attendant Walton in the TV area, I see the boys through the glass wall behind the console. Immobile, they pose outside the door in two single-file lines—all black and brown, mostly black, none white.

The 8–4 attendant keys the door open and directs them inside, one line at a time. In turns, each line of boys passes the console in a parade of skin tones ranging chocolate milk to gleaming coal. Several loom big as me, and I’m almost six feet tall. Asian letters, whose respective sounds I doubt very many of their carriers can enunciate, tattoo necks and forearms. Other uncovered skin displays reptiles and creatures of fantasy. And confined, Calvin doesn’t sport the only Afro on 3G. The Audy Home seems to be without a barber.

No one smiles. Every kid wears ratty or new or half-ratty/half-new tan, gray, green, or blue trousers, and a white T-shirt.

Some shirts hang loose on narrow shoulders. Other shirt fabric stretches over broad frames or vanishes into crevices of rolled waistline fat.

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The inmates turn around and align shoulder-to- shoulder, backs to the cell doors facing the console. On each white T-shirt chest I notice one of three bird logos—an owl’s face and two full-bodied fowls identical to those sported by the Baltimore Orioles and the St. Louis Cardinals baseball teams. However jailbird originated, here is more cruel irony—jailed kids donning shirts emblazoned with birds. Attendant Walton and I stay in the TV area. He writes more in the logbook. I watch the 8–4 follow the last inmate inside.

“Pull ’em up!” he barks. The boys bend and grab their pants’ legs at the calf and yank them above their ankles. Faces grin, glare, and smirk. Some bleed apathy. Many check me out. They don’t seem displeased that I am here, so I look away and turn back when they are refocused on the 8–4. His head rotates side-to-side, eyes probing, I assume, for pencils, dollar bills, Salem 100s, or folded up Playboy centerfolds bulging underneath their socks. Walton didn’t prep me on this routine, a routine I never witnessed as a Chaplain Rick volunteer and never read about in the job summary. Obvious now is my accountability to search more than the boys’ living quarters. I must visually inspect the boys’ bodies after every trip off the cellblock.

“Shirts!” the 8–4 shouts from in front of the console. He wears jeans. My khakis and collared shirt make me feel like a dishwasher in a tuxedo.

The kids drop their pants’ legs and hike their shirts over their beltless waistlines. They do what he tells them to, but the man is yelling at the air, as if his very act of articulating commands ensures the boys’ compliance. It does. I hope it will for me too.

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He scans the exposed trouser and boxer lines. Flesh falls over some waistlines; stomachs concave behind others. I wonder if any lighters are lodged where only nurses have chance to ferret them out. The 8–4 nods. Shirts roll down. “Shoes!”

The boys kick them off, hunch down, and pick them up. Holding them tops down, they look at him as he nods again. They whack the sneakers together like beachgoers brushing off before easing back into their cars. No contraband drops from the shoes and the boys toss them to the floor and wiggle their feet back into them.

“First four, TV area!” At the line’s left end, four boys peel off and file past the glass partition to the thirty chairs arranged in five or six rows and sit. The 8–4 dispatches the next four and the next four until everyone rests in a chair. Then he joins us. Attendant Walton summons me to leave the TV area with him. I follow to the console. He has spotted the lunch cart in the hallway and opens the door to pull it inside. Angling his burly frame back around toward the TV area, Walton calls out, “Let me have my kitchen help.” His tone is flat, empty of feeling to my ears, like he is uttering bad news. These two kitchen-help juveniles have earned this duty through cooperative behavior. They stand up and exit the TV area and come to us. Attendant Walton dishes up the plates and the boys arrange them in rows on the ping-pong table.

I go to the food cart—lightly breaded baked fish, greens, rice, a small bottle of Louisiana hot sauce, and a cellophane-wrapped precut chocolate cake in a flat cardboard box. Better than the prison schlock I expected. One of the kitchen helpers, Monty, a couple inches of Afro mounded on his head like Calvin, looks at me after Attendant Walton instructs him to portion out the precut cake pieces onto the plates. Monty holds a wide metal spatula. He is shorter than me, so our closeness doesn’t intimidate me. I could overpower him. Almost like Attendant Walton, Monty doesn’t look me in the face until he has reason—his unease with the cake-serving task. I reach out for the spatula. He hands it to me, and I do the first one with him watching. He says, “Thanks,” and grins when he neatly wedges out the cake’s second chunk. I’m here for this—to make kids smile. Monty and his partner position four finished plates at each of the six tables.

Then Attendant Walton calls the remaining boys from the TV area and lines them along the cell doors—exactly where the 8–4
attendant put them for the after-school search.

“First four, right here,” Walton points to a table. They comply and each boy pauses behind his chair, hands wrapped in back of him. Walton and his coworker do everything in fours. Walton fills the other five tables and then asks, “Someone wanna pray?”

A kid shoots up his hand and Walton nods. The boy begins with his peers chanting in unison: “God is good, God is great, let us thank him for our food, in the power of Jesus name, Amen.” In a government institution, this stuns me. Perhaps the prayer is Attendant Walton’s gift opportunity for the juveniles to publicly repent for whatever dirty deed prompted an officer to yank them into a squad car and deposit them here. The boys’ piously submissive words remind me of church potlucks from my childhood, except these praying participants do not hold hands, and no moms arrived with homemade ice cream and pecan-studded brownies.

“Mr. Dostert, come with me this way,” Walton grabs the lone plate of food off the ping-pong table. Half buried in the rice is a plastic fork. I trail Walton to cell twelve. Awake now, Calvin is propped up on his elbows looking through his Plexiglas right at us.

Attendant Walton pushes his key into the shaft and pulls the door open. He leans down and hands the lunch plate to Calvin who scoots back on his stomach and digs into the food. Walton steps back. I’m still behind him. I hold up because he isn’t moving.

Grasping the edge of the door, Attendant Walton jerks it towards his nose but halts the door with the toe end of his shoe.

“See there. Always do it like this,” he eyes the mud brown doorframe and then his foot. With no barrier between the door’s steel edge and me, a juvenile inside could shove it back and slice open my forehead. He motions for us to leave.

I fix a plate and eat behind the console while Attendant Walton returns to the TV area and pens more entries in the logbook.

Maybe he is recording the fact that the new guy now knows about cell door danger, so if a juvenile gashes my face with one, Attendant Walton and Cook County won’t be liable.

“This table, scrape,” the 8–4 attendant points to one. The four boys pop up and brush their lunch remains into a plastic garbage bag hung on the food cart’s edge. They stack plastic plates on the cart and toss plastic forks into a bin, the 8–4 counting each fork—potential shanks. The boys then line the wall to wait their restroom turn. The bathroom area has six toilets and three sinks, but unless one of us stands nearby, only one juvenile can enter. “Never let two residents be alone where you can’t see them,” Walton has already cautioned. “They can fight or molest each other.” Everyone lingers along the wall in front of the cell doors. The 8–4 attendant dismisses other tables individually to “scrape.” The kitchen helpers begin sweeping and mopping the common area. Once each juvenile is standing against the bricks and cell fronts, the 8–4 sends them into the bathroom one at a time. Still stomach-prone on his cell floor, Calvin squishes his forehead and nose and puffy hair against the Plexiglas.

Squirming as close to everyone else as his door allows, he hammers out homespun rap lyrics. Lonely, he must want others to loiter at his window where he can see and hear them and they can see and hear him.

I don’t know what Calvin did to be arrested or to be confined here on 3G, but Confinement strikes me as inhumane. I want to sneak the master cell door key, thick as a silver dollar, off Attendant Walton’s belt and free Calvin to follow everyone to the TV area. The head-bopping rapper perpetrates no crime right now.

I can’t picture him ramming his steel doorframe into my face.

Excerpted from "Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago's Other Side" by Mark Dostert. Published by the University of Iowa Press. Copyright 2014 by Mark Dostert. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher. All rights reserved.


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