Years of neglect and underfunding at the state's largest youth corrections facility have resulted in unsafe conditions that lend themselves to suicides, prison reform advocates said in a scathing report Monday.
The report by the John Howard Association of Illinois highlighted potentially dangerous beds, toilets and air vent covers at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles, as well as "crumbling infrastructure" and "chronic" sanitation problems.
"I'd kill myself, too, if I lived in a place like that," responded Rep. Annazette Collins, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the state's Juvenile Justice Reform Committee. "I'm disgusted."
The association's findings were made in the weeks after the Sept. 1 suicide of a 16-year-old boy from the South Side of Chicago.
Charles A. Fasano, director of the association's prisons and jails program, said the teenager used a piece of cloth to hang himself from a bunk-style bed that is common throughout the 125-acre campus.
Among the association's recommendations is to replace those beds with a slab style designed for prisons.
"It's not possible to totally eliminate suicide risks, but you can minimize them," Fasano said. "It sounds like this kid was checked on and within five minutes had succeeded in hanging himself."
In addition, the report found numerous buildings, including the prison chapel, that are "crumbling and abandoned due to years of neglected maintenance." It also called attention to a facility practice of covering deteriorated walls with metal sheets that can be unscrewed and removed, as two escapees discovered last December.
Yet another area of concern is staffing. Currently, each of the prison's 10-room cottages is assigned one guard a night, the report found, and there is no way to monitor what's going on in any of the rooms without a walk-up inspection. Another of the report's recommendations is to provide intercoms in each sleeping room and video surveillance in some.
Hanke Gratteau, the association's executive director, said the "appalling" findings should demonstrate the need for immediate action by lawmakers.
"Incarcerated youth deserve to be safe and housed in a humane environment that speaks of care, not abandonment and neglect," Gratteau said in a statement.
Januari Smith, communications director for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, did not return messages seeking comment. Neither did Gov. Pat Quinn's office.
But both Collins and State Sen. Chris Lauzen, an Aurora Republican whose district includes the youth prison along Route 38, blamed politics for inadequate funding and attention.
According to Lauzen, who said he supports additional funding, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich embargoed a John Howard Association report in 2007 proposing upgrades and repairs that may have clued in legislators to the severity of the situation.
"It shows there are consequences to political corruption," Lauzen said. "The idea that these facilities would be so run down that kids who have gone sideways with the law and are in despair see the only solution as either death or the most brutal violence, you just say, what have we come to?"
Collins said she believes the answer might be closing youth prisons across the state and moving inmates to group home settings, where they could receive more personalized rehabilitation services.
Currently, 275 of the state's 1,400 juvenile offenders are housed at the St. Charles facility.
Collins said about 40 percent of all incarcerated juveniles in Illinois are in prison because of parole violations rather than new offenses, and it costs $70,000 a year to house each one.
"It costs us so much money to keep these big facilities open, and we don't need them," Collins said. "They're all old and dilapidated; we could save a lot of money closing them down."
State Rep. Dennis M. Reboletti, an Addison Republican who also serves on the Juvenile Justice Reform Committee, said shutting down facilities is not the answer. Rather, he said, lawmakers considering $40 million in unsolicited funding for an expansion at Chicago State University should use money from that endeavor to immediately address safety issues at the prison.
"We've already lost one life, and that's too many," he said.