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COOK COUNTY, lll. — Despite claims that the Cook County juvenile detention center does not use solitary confinement, a new report found all kids spend at least half their day locked in isolation.

Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans appointed a committee to examine operations at the facility, which houses kids between the ages of 10 and 21 who face criminal charges. The committee concluded that while administrations may not use the word “solitary confinement” all youth in the facility spend at least 12 hours per day locked in their cells overnight and many spend more time than that in forced isolation. 

The study found at least 300 times in one month, kids were kept in isolation for at least 16 hours in a day for non-punitive reasons, meaning it was not for punishment. Even kids in custody who were not exhibiting behavioral problems were  locked in their rooms from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for what the staff termed “sleeping hours.”  However, the study noted: “Healthy adolescents do not sleep from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., so the label itself is inaccurate.”

The committee anonymously quoted youth in custody to share their feelings. 

“Staff can put you in your room as much as they want without telling why or how long you will be there,” one child is quoted as saying.  

“Staff uses room confinement to control us,” another said.

“[The facility’s] approach to working with the youth is isolating and deprivational, rather than rehabilitative and relational,” the committee determined.  

Committee members noted there is a large body of research documenting the physical and psychological harm caused by prolonged solitary confinement.

Covid made feelings of isolation in the juvenile jail even more isolating. 

“Once any kid caught COVID, then everyone was kept in their rooms for 72 hours,” the study quoted one youth in custody as saying. “Everything stopped during that time.”

The committee concluded that the facility violates the Illinois Juvenile Court Act by not focusing on rehabilitation and offering programming, beyond schooling, to help those in custody.

“The primary function of unit staff is to maintain custody of the youth rather than engage them,” the study found.  It recommends closing the juvenile detention facility and replacing it with smaller, community-based centers that provide specialized services.

The Chief Judge’s office responded to the report by focusing on a positive conclusion of the study. 

“[The facility] does meet its mandate to keep youth safe and in custody,” superintendent Leonard Dixon was quoted as saying in a press release. 

“[We are] committed to implement best practices” and “to continually revise… ways to reduce confinement while maintaining safety and security for residents and staff,” the press release stated.