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Kid killers set to begin prison life

Juvenile DelinquencyJails and PrisonsGang ActivityFamily

Sometime Thursday morning, a bus is scheduled to pull into the sprawling youth prison at St. Charles and deposit Illinois' youngest inmates: the two boys who dropped 5-year-old Eric Morse to his death from a 14th-floor window.

After walking down a narrow cement path and past a sign that reads "Reception Center, Intake," the two youths will enter a red brick building where they'll be searched, stripped, searched again and showered with a special shampoo that removes lice. A correctional officer will confiscate all their clothes and possessions, except their tennis shoes and a book or two. They will be issued a sky-blue prison jumpsuit, underwear, socks, a hat and toiletries--toothpaste, a toothbrush, a comb, shampoo and deodorant.

From the start, the boys will learn that from now on they are told what to do and when to do it. As part of the procedure, they will be given a thick handbook and a brief lecture from prison staff outlining the institution's rules, including a ban on cigarettes, matches, swearing, drugs and weapons.

Rules are not considered optional. The reception-area bathroom even has a sign that reads, "Flush the Toilet or a 504"--504 is prison slang for a rules violation.

It's not uncommon for youths, nervous and depressed, to relax by sucking their thumbs in the reception area that first day. A few become unruly or suicidal.

"The reality (of going to prison) can strike them when they are on the road here," said Jerry Butler, St. Charles' superintendent. "It can strike them when they hit the front gates, or it can strike them when the deputy who brought them here says goodbye and the door shuts behind him."

Shortly after arriving, the boys will have their mug shots taken. They will then meet with a prison counselor who will question them about their criminal past, gang involvement, truancy, drug use and whether they're suicidal. They are allowed to make one call to a family member.

The older boy, now 13, will be sent to Robinson Cottage, one of three units that temporarily houses approximately 90 inmates who are awaiting permanent assignment to one of the state's six youth prisons, including St. Charles. He will live alone in a cell furnished with a bed, a toilet and a crude, stainless-steel mirror.

The younger boy, now 12, will be locked in a cell in a cramped, darkened wing of the prison infirmary. The cell is reserved for a half-dozen inmates who are sick, suicidal or chronic troublemakers. Guards will check his cell frequently.

"Based on all the information we have, he has a problem with persons and staff," said Joanne Perkins, deputy director of the state Department of Corrections, referring to the 12-year-old. "We just want to make sure he is safe and staff is safe. It's crucial that he not get off to the wrong start and carry a chip on his shoulder."

Perkins says she decided to house the boys separately because, "by all indications, they are a negative influence on each other."

The older boy will be allowed to circulate with other new inmates, including going to the prison school, the gymnasium and the cafeteria. He will be able to watch television and play cards, chess and other games in the Robinson Cottage common room.

Teachers, social workers and other prison staff will go to the infirmary to work with the younger boy, though prison officials say that he may be allowed to leave the infirmary accompanied by a staff member.

"I'm going to have three staff members work with him like a big brother," Butler said. "I want them to talk to him, spend time with him, get him to loosen up a bit and get rid of that tough-guy image."

All last week, Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Carol Kelly heard testimony about whether the boys should be sent to an out-of-state residential treatment facility or to a youth prison.

On Monday, Kelly appeared to take the middle road when she sentenced the two killers to prison but ordered correctional officials to give them intensive help. She said the boys must be held accountable for their "heinous" crime. She also said she hoped they could be rehabilitated.

The boys' new lives--and society's experiment in dealing with such youthful killers--begins at St. Charles.

With its stylish red brick buildings and campuslike landscape, St. Charles lacks the foreboding atmosphere at many of the state's adult prisons. There are no guard towers, and correctional officials chafe when someone calls the place a prison. They want St. Charles referred to by its official title: the Illinois Youth Center-St.Charles.

But make no mistake, St. Charles is a prison, albeit one for youthful offenders. It's 100-plus acres are surrounded by two 12-foot-high fences topped by razor wire. Guards dressed in brown uniforms patrol the grounds, and there are locked steel doors and bulletproof glass everywhere.

Many of the inmates are gang members. The Vice Lords gang, one of Chicago's oldest and most notorious, was founded at St. Charles. And the threat of violence is ubiquitous. Prison officials fear the boys may become targets because of their notoriety.

"If you need help getting straight, this is the wrong place to be," said a 17-year-old inmate convicted of aggravated battery and residential burglary who arrived at St. Charles on Tuesday and had spent a year there in 1994. "You learn too much bad stuff here. You learn other ways to get into trouble."

All youthful offenders in Illinois sentenced to prison are first sent to St. Charles, where they are evaluated by prison staff before being transferred to one of the youth prisons. Some of the youths remain at St. Charles, where there are 498 inmates.

Perkins and other prison officials say that Morse's killers will be treated like other inmates processed at St. Charles, though they are the first youths sentenced to prison under a new law aimed at cracking down on young criminals, sometimes known as "superpredators."

Within the first few days of incarceration, the boys--like all new inmates--will be evaluated by a mental health expert and will have their reading and math skills tested.

Normally, prison officials use the information, along with disciplinary reports at St. Charles, court and school records, and other information, to quickly develop a short-term treatment and education plan for inmates.

But Kelly asked prison officials to conduct a more thorough psychological examination on the boys as part of her order that the Department of Corrections and the Department of Children and Family Services present her with a comprehensive treatment plan for the boys by March 18.

Putting together that plan is one reason why prison officials expect the youths to remain at St. Charles for up to six weeks, though the length of stay depends, in part, on how much the youths are willing to cooperate with staff.

"When they walk through that door, they have a new start," said Perkins, referring to the boys.

"It's up to them to decide what they want to do with it."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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