After spending a year inside a Chicago high school examining why only 50 percent of students graduate, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio wanted to report on what happens to the 50 percent of students who drop out. One answer is that many of them end up incarcerated, including in the state's eight juvenile prisons. So reporters were eager to interview young offenders to see what had gone wrong.
Going inside the youth facilities would also let WBEZ monitor Illinois’ progress in reforming its juvenile justice system. In 2006, the state had separated its youth prisons from its adult facilities. The MacArthur Foundation had awarded the state a “Models for Change” grant in order to accelerate proposed reforms of the state's juvenile justice system.
Chicago Public Radio reporter Robert Wildeboer thought the story called for ongoing visits to multiple youth detention facilities. But the state put up roadblocks at the beginning: First, it deliberated on WBEZ’s request for access for four months. Then, it granted the reporters a single supervised tour of one facility in Chicago. Citing privacy concerns, Gov. Pat Quinn’s office denied the station’s request for additional access.
But Wildeboer was not deterred. He pressed on, explaining that just one supervised tour of one facility was not going to provide comprehensive insight into the Department of Juvenile Justice’s practices. The denials from Gov. Quinn’s office became more pointed and less sensible, Wildeboer says. On Dec. 10, 2009, Wildeboer produced a story on his attempt to work with the Governor’s Office. “Taxpayers are footing the more-than-$100 million budget for these places,” he said on the air and on the WBEZ Web site. “We want to be able to see for ourselves how they're run and bring that information to you. But Governor Pat Quinn says no.”
Audience response was swift and powerful, Wildeboer says. “Comments went up all over the Web from people across the state,” he says. “People were at least confused, if not outraged, about the denial.”
Community members also promised to call the Governor’s Office, pledging their support for the reporting. “People don’t like locked doors and mystery,” says Senior Editor Cate Cahan. “It heartened us to see their support.”
The governor reversed his decision and granted the reporters access to multiple juvenile facilities. The result is “Inside and Out,” a six-month series which launched Jan. 25, 2010 with a week of stories profiling young people whose lives have tangled with the Illinois juvenile justice system.
They include: Marcus, a 14-year-old struggling to resist the lure of street life and complete grade school; Angelica, a 19-year-old who has cycled in and out of youth prison twice; and Mario, a 20-year-old college student whose childhood was pockmarked with violence and trauma. The unflinching, unwavering accounts of their troubles with the law raise the question: Can the juvenile justice system rehabilitate young offenders, rather than just detain them?
Cahan hopes the project will foster discussions about the restructuring of the juvenile justice system.
“The heart of this project is assessing whether or not these youth facilities are successful in accomplishing their goals,” she says. “It’s a good time to shine a light on this institution and foster a discussion about what is being done for these kids.”
Gaining access to youth prisons was just the first of the challenges faced by the team of reporters--Wildeboer, Adriene Hill, Linda Paul, Sam Hudzik, Gabriel Spitzer, plus photographer Carlos Javier Ortiz. The young people featured in the first week of profiles were often difficult to track down and interview.
Adriene Hill follows 19-year-old Angelica’s story, which provides insight into aftercare and recidivism issues. Angelica has cycled in and out of youth prison twice. Hill, who usually covers business for the Metro Desk, says her approach to Angelica’s story has required a shift from her usual reporting methods. She spends hours with Angelica with her tape recorder off and often must allocate extra time in order to locate Angelica for interviews.
“I’ve had to be very proactive about meeting with Angelica,” Hill says. “Sometimes she shuts off her phone because she doesn’t have the money to pay for it and I just won’t hear from her.”
Wildeboer, who follows 14-year-old Marcus’s fight to dodge the Department of Juvenile Justice, has turned to the South Side’s rough neighborhoods to track down his story. Marcus has left home, and there is a warrant out for his arrest. He’s essentially in hiding. When Wildeboer searches for Marcus, many assume he’s affiliated with the Department of Juvenile Justice and will not share information about Marcus.
All of the “Inside and Out” reporters share the challenge of breaking down a broad issue into manageable pieces. The conversation about juvenile justice is one riddled with daunting statistics—in Illinois the juvenile recidivism rate is estimated to be about 50 percent—but the WBEZ reporters try to focus on the individuals and not on the numbers.
“Our working hypothesis is that by telling people about these vibrant kids with compelling stories, [the audience] will become invested in the larger issue,” Wildeboer says.
Gabriel Spitzer covers mental health issues for “Inside and Out.” He examines how trauma affects the brains and behavior of adolescents. He says sharing 20-year-old Mario’s story of childhood adversity offers a window into how the science of trauma is at work within the Juvenile Justice System.
“Mario’s story allows people to interface a little better with the science,” Spitzer says. “This isn’t theoretical physics, this is how young people’s minds work—and it’s fascinating.”
Spitzer also uses the “Inside and Out” blog to expand on the research he touches upon while profiling Mario.
“Science is a subject that just begs for a hyperlink,” he says. “In radio, the vehicle to share a story can be very small, just by dint of the medium. If people are interested in finding out more [about trauma research], the blog gives them the tools to do that.”
The “Inside and Out” Web site offers links to research about mental health, juvenile prison facility audits and other documents. An interactive graphic maps the eight Illinois youth prisons and displays details about each. Photo essays and information about community events will also be posted to the Web site.
Spitzer and his colleagues transform staggering statistics into riveting stories about bright, capable and articulate youths who have become inextricably intertwined with the justice system.
Already, WBEZ’s audience is leaving comments, wondering if there’s a better way to redeem troubled youth. A teacher remarked that she’s incorporating the series into her lesson plans. Students from a local suburban high school received a visit from “Inside and Out” reporters and discussed their reaction to the series.
“We’ve found that sharing these remarkable stories really lights a fire under our listeners,” Cahan says. “We’re trying to grab people’s understanding and imaginations and examine this broad issue.”
The next challenge, she says, will be to sustain the level of interest as the series develops over the next six months. Those lacking interest in juvenile justice reform still need to be convinced that this issue pertains to them, Cahan says. She insists it does.
“When these kids come out of these institutions, they come back to the community,” she says. “If they’re not guided, if they’re further damaged by their experiences in these facilities, it’s an impact on everybody.”
Mina Dixon is a JCCF intern.
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