Watchdog Report: IYC Harrisburg Needs Work

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By Fanna Haile-Selassie

HARRISBURG -- A prison watchdog group is out with its latest report on the Illinois Youth Center in Harrisburg. It includes several criticisms, including a high level of violent incidents and conflicts between staff and inmates.   

In the last year, the Department of Juvenile Justice has gone through some changes. Prison watchdogs hope those changes will improve conditions behind bars.
     
"There is a new director. She's got a lot of new staff, really highly trained and experienced staff with a renewed commitment to a rehabilitative mission," says Jennifer Vollen-Katz, the Juvenile Justice Program Director with the John Howard Association.
 
But she says IYC Harrisburg could still use a lot of improvement. Nearly half the youth inside these walls are repeat offenders. While Vollen-Katz is not sure why, it doesn't help that this particular youth center also experiences a lot of fights between youth and tension with staff members.
 
"In Harrisburg, the number of youth who independently, consistently report issues with staff relations is very different; it's much higher than it is at other facilities," she says.
 
The report also cites numerous complaints of staff swearing at the juveniles and using racial and sexual comments.
     
But IYC Union President Peter Fisher says he doesn't appreciate how JHA tends to side against correctional staff.
 
"They take everything the youth say as the gospel truth and they don't investigate it, they report what they hear as being true," explains Fisher.
 
He says some of the changes by the Juvenile Justice Department are what's causing issues on the ground and giving staff less authority.
 
"When you know that you're not going to be held accountable for something, how well can it work? A lot of times, they'll laugh at us when we're putting them in time out," says Fisher.
 
The John Howard Association report actually applauded Harrisburg's use of the new "Time Out" program. It also recommends that staff do a better job at finding placements for the youth once they're approved for release.
 
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