Illinois Youth Center - St. Charles
Illinois Youth Center - St. Charles
The Illinois Youth Center - St. Charles is a Level 2 medium-security facility. It is unique as a facility because in addition to the general population program, the facility serves as a reception center, processing the majority of all male youth committed to IDJJ.
The John Howard Association (JHA) conducted a full monitoring visit of Illinois Youth Center (IYC)-St. Charles on Wednesday February 27th, 2019. Compared to the previous year, there have been substantial positive changes in the facility. The first major change was the 35% reduction of youth population in the facility. This decrease allowed the facility to rearrange the housing units so that fewer youth resided in each unit, which led to positive outcomes by making youth behavior more manageable.
Another notable change was the data-informed decision to give youth increased time outside of their cells. Data collected and analyzed by the facility revealed that there was a positive relationship between the amount of time that youth spend in their cells and number of altercations in the facility. As a result of this analysis, the facility administrators increased the time youth spent outside of their cells, which led to a reduction in assaults and increased staff ability to better manage youth behavior.
With the decrease of youth altercations in the facility, as well as increased staffing in the school, youth were able to receive a full day’s worth of instruction, which is a significant change from our 2018 visit. In our observation of the school, youth appeared to be attentive to instruction. Additionally, with the decreased number of altercations, opportunities for programming inside and outside of the facility increased. The increased safety in the facility also enables rehabilitative programming to occur unhindered.
In our examination of the mental health diagnoses of youth in the facility, it appears that during our 2019 visit youth had more mental health diagnoses and greater mental health needs overall. However, with the decreased population, this translates to decreased caseloads for mental health staff. Though the mental health staff are meeting the minimum requirements for youth treatment as dictated by their mental health level, JHA recommends using the mental health staff’s greater capacity to both increase the amount and diversify the types of services available to address the mental health needs of these youth.
The positive changes in the facility highlight the benefit and need for smaller facilities with adequate levels of staffing, the ability to provide more individualized attention, and the importance of collecting information so that facilities can make data informed and driven decisions. JHA notes the improvements inside the facility and commends administration and staff for their flexibility and creativity in making some much-needed changes. We hope that this positive momentum continues in the facility, and that data collection and informed decision making, increased treatment and programming for all youth, along with increased school attendance and an improved educational atmosphere occur throughout IDJJ.
The John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA) conducted a full monitoring visit of Illinois Youth Center (IYC)-St. Charles (St. Charles) on February 22nd, 2018, and an abbreviated follow-up visit on May 3rd, 2018.
During the first visit in February, youth were observed being locked in their single-bunked cells for most of the day and were only let out of their rooms for limited school time and required programming. Because of several incidents of staff and youth assault occurring within the past year, staff reported feeling unsafe in the facility. This impacted staffing levels, as many staff positions remained unfulfilled at the time of both visits, and also this impacted the quality of interaction between youth and staff. Consequently, youth remained in their cells because staffing shortages could not allow for youth to be released, as a two staff minimum on the housing units are required for youth to be released for recreation time. Of concern, was that staff reported they did not feel safe having youth outside of their cells, paired with staffing shortages, this creates increasing difficulty to provide youth programming and recreation.i The increased in-room/confinement time led to youth’s hyperactivity and disruptive behavior when they were finally let out of their cell, which culminated in further disruptive behavior. This cycle of confinement, eventual removal of restrictions, youth misbehavior, and confinement was clearly observed on the May 3rd visit. During this visit, school was severely restricted, as youth were observed receiving only 40 minutes of instruction on the day of the visit.
To address this cycle of behavioral disruption and confinement, it is recommended that a youth’s out-of-cell time be increased. Youth should be receiving more educational instruction time, and youth would also benefit from increased mental health treatment. Additionally, staff need to be provided with methods of controlling a youth’s behavior that are trauma-informed rather than trauma-inducing. The Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) model, when used correctly throughout the institution and with fidelity to the model, can be a useful tool to incentivize good behavior and also change the climate of the institution.
Staff need to feel safe, and their reasonable fear of physical assault without having a professional response that both protects them and does not exacerbate mental health or trauma issues the youth may have is indicative of an unworkable system. It seems that the inability to address safety concerns in a large youth penal institution while also promoting rehabilitation points to the need for Illinois to move to a different way of approaching juvenile justice. In order for staff to feel safe and do their jobs, and for youth to receive regular educational, recreational and mental health programming, Illinois must shift to a model that supports change through individualized programming and treatment and focuses on family connection and successful community reentry.
The John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA) conducted a full monitoring visit of Illinois Youth Center (IYC)-St. Charles (St. Charles) in April 2015, and an abbreviated follow up visit in September 2015. St. Charles is unique among the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) facilities in that it includes both a Level 2 medium-security male youth correctional facility and a Reception and Classification center (R&C) for male youth upon their initial commitment to IDJJ custody before they are assigned to parent facilities. Having these dual functions, St. Charles is the largest of IDJJ’s six youth facilities in terms of both number of staff employed and the size of the youth population.
St. Charles’ population is diverse in terms of the various stages at which they find themselves in the juvenile justice process and their resulting treatment needs. St. Charles’ size and the diversity of its population make the process of implementing major reforms especially challenging. When JHA visited in April 2015, the facility employed roughly 185 staff on active duty (excluding the 25 staff on short or long term leave). The facility housed a total of 226 youth. During the month of April, 166 youth were screened through the R&C unit prior to assignment to a parent facility. Out of the total facility population of 226, 28 youth were designated as “Special Treatment” youth, that is, youth with moderate to intermediate chronic mental health issues. A total of 80 youth, more than a third St. Charles’ population, were incarcerated due to “technical” parole violations, meaning they violated parole for “technical” reasons, including failing to abide by a parole condition like curfew or attending counseling, but were not charged with a new criminal offense. Another 24 “court writ” youth were provisionally housed at St. Charles to facilitate their transportation to and from court in ongoing, pending court cases. In addition, a total of 15 youth were committed to St. Charles with the purpose of incarcerating them for short periods between 30 to 90 days to perform court evaluations.2
St. Charles has undergone significant changes since JHA’s last monitoring report. Not only has St. Charles’ overall population increased, primarily because it has absorbed youth from recently closed facilities, but IDJJ has also tasked the facility with housing special populations, including youth who have serious mental health issues and youth who have pending court cases.
By all accounts, the facility has struggled to meet the needs of its new and growing population, particularly in its school, which is currently operating on a reduced schedule. At the time of JHA’s visit, the school at St. Charles had a 50 percent staffing shortage, with only 11 teachers at the facility. There is also a frequent lack of sufficient security staff at the facility due to the need to escort youth to and from court. This results in even fewer school hours and days per week because often there is not enough security staff to safely move youth through the school hallways to their classrooms.
Alongside these staffing issues, St. Charles is trying to implement a system of graduated disciplinary sanctions to decrease its use of confinement, which is the term IDJJ uses to describe segregation or solitary confinement. Despite these efforts, St. Charles continues to use confinement at a high rate compared to other facilities, and the administration admits that it has had difficulty using graduated sanctions and alternatives to confinement for youth who present serious behavior problems.
As IDJJ continues the important work of creating a system that aims to rehabilitate youth, it needs to heed the lessons of two recent assessments of the state’s juvenile prisons. In June 2013, the United States Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a nationwide survey of rates of sexual victimization in juvenile facilities and found that Illinois ranked among the four worst states in the country. Additionally, in September 2013, experts hired to assess education, mental health, and safety as part of federal litigation regarding allegations of unconstitutional conditions in IDJJ filed their reports. These reports will inform a plan of remediation drafted by IDJJ, and ultimately be approved or rejected by the court.1
On April 3, 2011, the John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA) visited IYC-St. Charles, northern Illinois’ medium-security facility for boys. St. Charles also serves as the northern Reception and Classification facility in the state for boys committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
In general, JHA found that the interactions between staff and youth were noticeably more friendly, open, and communicative when compared to past visits. We observed conversations between staff and youth that seemed casual and positive, including greetings and general upbeat comments that suggest an attitude shift among the staff. St. Charles’ administration discussed a new emphasis on individualized treatment of youth, encouraging staff to get to know each youth to better understand his needs and behavior, particularly when assessing what consequence might be necessary for various behavioral infractions.
While JHA was impressed by our observations and anecdotal reports we received from staff and administration, we noted that St. Charles lacked ready access to data that tracked the facility’s operations. Most importantly, St. Charles was not able to provide JHA with important information about its use of confinement. While JHA received raw numbers of youth kept in confinement, there was no information about the reasons they were held there. Without knowing why each youth was subject to this disciplinary tool, it is impossible to assess St. Charles’ use of confinement. We strongly encourage St. Charles, and DJJ as a whole, to renew data-collecting efforts in this area.
The school at St. Charles is taking innovative steps towards better serving its students. Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS), a behavior modification program, seems to be fully operational at this facility, with the exception of having enough staff to adequately maintain the Ready to Learn room, a program designed to help misbehaving students correct their behavior and stay in class. The addition of the Florida Virtual School, an online-based educational enhancement program, as well as implementing medicine ball seating for students with attention issues, are positive steps in helping the students at St. Charles to succeed.
Volunteer programming has been a strength of St. Charles, but the administration was concerned about sustaining programs that have been successful in the past. Two programs that appeared to be in danger of discontinuation were the green house and the humane society bringing animals to the facility to help youth develop a sense of responsibility and compassion. Hopefully, these efforts will be renewed and will continue through the work of dedicated volunteers in the community.
On May 17, 2011, the John Howard Association visited IYC-St. Charles, Northern Illinois’ medium-security facility for boys. St. Charles also serves as the Northern Reception and Classification facility for Illinois.