Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Teacher Shortage In Illinois' Juvenile Prisons Undermines The Rehab Of Youth Offenders...

Youth Prisons Suffer Teacher Shortage

By Kenneth Lowe

SPRINGFIELD — Union leaders, interest groups and employees say the Department of Juvenile Justice has a teacher shortage that leaves imprisoned youths without full-time schooling.

But Illinois Department of Corrections officials counter that inmates at five of the state’s eight juvenile prisons are receiving full-time schooling.

While there is little agreement on that matter among state officials and advocacy groups, both sides say education for young prisoners can prevent prison populations from returning to the system.

Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said his union has shown great concern with the way the state runs the Department of Juvenile Justice.

“In general, we’re extremely concerned with what really amounts to a neglect of this department,” Lindall said.

The department was split off of the Department of Corrections in 2006.

In addition, many teaching spots remain vacant, even though the state has money to fill them, Lindall said.

Kurt Friedenauer, the Department of Juvenile Justice's interim director, said there have been improvements. The department has hired on another 12 people since the beginning of the year, and the new superintendent of schools Lanée Walls starts her job Tuesday.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said hiring teachers is more difficult than at regular schools.

“The challenge that the state faces in hiring teachers isn’t related to budget constraints,” Ottenhoff said. “It’s related to a shortage of interested teachers.”

‘Trust doesn’t come easy for these kids’

Meanwhile, some teachers already working in the system say their jobs are tough.

Susan Sidwell is a teacher at Illinois Youth Center St. Charles, a youth prison in the Chicago suburbs that holds about 300 inmates on a given day.

Corrections spokeswoman Januari Smith said the St. Charles facility and four others, including ones in Harrisburg, Joliet, Murphysboro and Warrenville, have full-time schools for inmates.

Sidwell said that is not the case at St. Charles.

She describes the inmates there as living in seven separate housing blocks, three of which attend half-day school. The rest attend a drug education program.

Sidwell teaches remedial reading five days a week in four 90-minute blocks a day. She teaches 10 to 12 students in each class.

“Reading is something they felt a failure at all their lives, and they’re only with you a short period of time. You don’t even have time to earn their trust,” Sidwell said. “Trust doesn’t come easy for these kids — they’ve had too many adults fail them.”

Much Work For

few peopleSidwell said a shortage of staff members is holding back students not just in classroom hours, but in navigating the justice system itself.

“We’ve got so few clerks it’s ridiculous,” Sidwell said. “My principal can’t get the transition paperwork for when the kids leave.”

Smith said the department is making efforts at hiring secretaries, but its top priority is finding teachers.

Jan Bradley, a union president in St. Charles, said the teacher shortage can cause some to remain incarcerated longer.

Some youths have been handed a court mandate to obtain a general equivalency degree before being released, a difficult achievement in a system that only offers half-day school, Bradley says.

Charles Fasano, a member of a Chicago-based prison advocacy, said when they’re well-staffed, prison schools can be more effective than some public schools.

“I’ve sat in many classrooms and watched,” Fasano said. “Kids who don’t do well in other environments do really well here.”

Sidwell and the union blame Blagojevich.

“We’ve never been hurting for state employees like we have under this governor,” Sidwell said. “He boasts how many thousands of paid positions that he eliminates. What he’s failed to mention is you can’t get the job done with that few people.”

The Costs Of Cutting School

The Governor’s Office of Management and Budget shows more than 50 percent of youths have returned to prison within three years of release since 2005.

But reports from research groups and government agencies show a reduction in recidivism among former inmates as they receive more education.

“I keep seeing the same kids come back,” Bradley said. “When they come back their crimes just escalate. It’s like they get so many chances and they just build up to this horrendous file in their short little life.”

Kenneth Lowe can be contacted at Kenneth.lowe@lee.net or (217) 789-0865.

No comments: