By Serena Maria Daniels, Tribune reporter
7:49 PM PDT, July 19, 2011
Despite vowing to replace bunk beds at its youth detention centers following several suicides, a state agency has failed to install safer beds in some sections of a center in St. Charles where the most recent suicide occurred, according to a recent report.
After a 16-year-old hanged himself at the Illinois Youth Center St. Charles in 2009, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice said it would replace the bunk beds with single beds. But the agency has yet to install safer beds in some areas there, including in cells where suicidal inmates are housed, according to the report.
"This is ridiculous. They don't care about our children," said Cheryl Miller, whose son, Jamal, hanged himself from a metal bunk bed at the facility. "When it comes to them doing it right, who's correcting them?"
The report was released by the John Howard Association earlier this month following a visit to the medium-security male youth center in May. The report was part of the association's Juvenile Justice Project. The project monitors the state agency's eight youth lockups, which are transitioning from a corrections to a rehabilitative model.
The Tribune investigated the suicides of Jamal Miller and six other youths since 2000, and last year exposed that the dangerous bunk beds and other room furnishings were suicide hazards and that Department of Corrections investigators failed to investigate the suicides thoroughly.
Kendall Marlowe, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, did not dispute the report's findings and said it reflects an ongoing working relationship the state agency has with the watchdog group.
"Safe and appropriate furnishings is a systemwide issue that we have to solve facility by facility," Marlowe said.
Of the seven youths who committed suicide since 2000, four hanged themselves from bunk beds inside their cells. At least 175 youths have attempted to kill themselves inside Department of Juvenile Justice lockup facilities since 2000, according to the Tribune's findings last year.
Since Jamal's suicide, the department has taken steps to improve safety measures at its eight facilities, including removing or modifying the dangerous bunk beds within the general population areas and in special medical units, Marlowe said.
But the beds have not been replaced in all sections of all sites, including in the confinement area where the suicidal inmates are kept at the St. Charles location, according to the report.
Marlowe could not confirm the John Howard Association's findings about the beds in the confinement area, but said the department will replace the remaining unsafe beds throughout the system by the end of August. Forty-eight beds have been replaced in two of the facility's cottages, Marlowe said. Additional beds were replaced in the special treatment unit, but Marlowe said he did not have the exact number. The facility's capacity is 318.
Cheryl Miller filed a federal lawsuit in August, seeking $5 million in damages and alleging that employees were negligent in their care for Jamal, who had a long history of mental health issues and tried to commit suicide several times.
Jamal's suicide did not take place in a confinement area; he was in the facility's special treatment mental health unit, according to the report. Beds in the area where he was housed have been replaced, Marlowe said.
The Department of Juvenile Justice, which is charged with protecting and treating youth offenders, has attempted to move away from a correctional setting to treat inmates in a more rehabilitative environment since the agency broke from the Department of Correction five years ago.
But without adequate resources, the agency has struggled to address the mental health needs of its inmates, officials say.
The John Howard report cited other problems at the St. Charles facility. Among them, the facility's infirmary is not fit for use, and sick and injured youths are instead held in solitary confinement cells, some for weeks at a time. Those quarters typically are reserved for inmates who've committed violent offenses.
Meanwhile Cheryl Miller, who lives in Springfield and regularly travels to Chicago to attend deposition hearings surrounding her lawsuit, grapples with the loss of her son.
March 13 would have been Jamal's 18th birthday. To celebrate her son's life, she visited a pond near her church and released 18 red and white balloons before saying a prayer and eating birthday cake with loved ones.
"This year would have been his graduation year," Miller said. "It seems that the older that it gets, the worse it gets … Just thinking about the things he could have achieved by now."
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