Column: Walking the line

By Jenette Sturges

Each time I travel home for a weekend on the Amtrak to Chicago, I usually end up seated next to recently released convicts from downstate prisons.

In light of this, I decided to learn more about our criminal justice system for myself last Friday, when I had the displeasure of sitting in on a tour of the DuPage county jail that is part of a program aimed at “scaring straight” teenagers convicted of misdemeanors. It only took about two hours and one encircling of the general population area to determine that these programs cannot possibly work.

The four teenagers forced into the program under court order were lined up and patted down upon entry to the jail, though it was obvious that this wasn’t a safety measure but an excuse to sling verbal abuse towards the kids. By the time they reached one of the police training facilities inside the complex where, sadly, the University’s learning and labor and police institute seals hung, it had become quite evident that these scare tactic would be incredibly ineffective, particularly on the two defiant boys who continually attempted to argue with the officer.

But according to the facts provided by the jail’s PowerPoint presentation, a montage of photos and statistics concerning the jail and its population set to Creed’s “My Own Prison” on repeat (possibly one of the most torturous parts of the entire program), women are more at risk of returning with a startling 89 percent repeat offender rate. Men, in comparison, have only an 82 percent chance of becoming a repeat offender.

After about an hour of constant yelling and berating, the cop told stories of the nine thousand kids he’d seen go through his program annually and then end up behind county bars anyway, only to be mocked by the same officer formerly charged with keeping them out of the system. He concluded his speech by ensuring the kids that their misbehavior keeps him in a job.

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    In short, he had admitted to the faults in his own program. It’s not just statistics that prove the inefficacy of these programs. It was written on the faces of the kids that this program did nothing to scare them straight, but was, in fact, only embedding further distrust in the police and the legal system in general. Moreover, the walk through the general population daytime area of the jail only seemed to challenge defiant teenagers trying to fit cliches and prove their toughness. This was painfully evident when one of them asked if it would be possible to see “some real cons” in solitary confinement.

    More importantly, this jail tour did more than highlight the problems inherent in prevention programs aimed at teenagers; it also gave a startling picture of jails on the whole. And while some people decidedly deserve to be locked up, perhaps these conditions are not ideal for rehabilitating anyone back into society.

    According to statistics provided by the DuPage county jail, at any given time between 20 to 40 percent of prisoners are infected with HIV. Other diseases include lice and scabies, along with hepatitis and other STDs. The PowerPoint presentation was quick to fortify these statistics with photos of blood-splattered cells. As the teenagers walked the inside of general population, they were catcalled by prisoners who made it very clear that rape was a daily occurrence. Possibly the scariest thing about this jail, however, was that it housed everything from shoplifters to murderers and rapists, mixing the two extremes in one facility.

    While it is true that criminals deserve punishment, our justice system contains huge deficiencies in rehabilitation, whether considering hardened criminals serving time or teenagers accused of underage drinking. After seeing exactly what happens in this system first hand, I have to wonder if the released convict beside me on the train is really ready for re-entry to society. Although it may be his fault that he was serving time in the first place, a convict’s second conviction and return to prison may have as much to do with his stupidity as it does with our defunct legal system.

    In short, we cannot expect the rehabilitation of our criminals without repairing the faults in our justice system.

    Jenette Sturges is a junior in LAS. Her column appears every Tuesday. She can be reached at [email protected].