I was on the unit one time. … We were eatin’, and some of the residents were exchangin’ words. … Instead of the staff tryin’ to figure out what the problem is, they say, “Is you all gonna keep woofin? Is y’all gonna fight or what?” The dude was like, “What’s up, you wanna fight?” And the dude says, “Sure. I don’t care. Let’s fight.” And then they get to fightin’. … And then the staff just stand up watchin’ — “Don’t nobody get in the way. Let ‘em fight. Let ‘em fight. Move.” So they fightin’ — After that, the staff like, “DANG! He messed you up. … OOOH! He blacked your eye.” And now, “You all cool? You cool? All right, cool, now go to you all room.”
This is the voice that runs throughout Chicago Public Radio’s “Juvenile Detention Center Conditions Through the Eyes of Youth” program. It is the voice of a misguided 18-year-old whom the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center failed.
The teenager, given the name “Marcus” for the program, spent nearly a year and a half of his life in the worn-down facility. If anyone could tell the story of the residents there, it was him, and WBEZ knew it.
“Newspaper reports had described a litany of abuses at the center, and we decided to examine the situation though the eyes of the detainees,” said WBEZ in its letter to the judges. “This approach yielded disturbing new information, including accounts of staff-instigated spectator-type fights between detainees and unreasonable enforcement of rules of silence.”
By hearing Marcus, listeners learned that the only thing filthier than the conditions in the center were the consciences of the facility’s staff. The center didn’t just renege on the promise on its Web site to provide “the children with a safe, secure and caring environment,” they actually offered the antithesis.
The unique perspective broadcast by the public radio station didn’t fall on deaf ears. The Chicago Tribune reported that the Cook County Board president made reforms to the center after absorbing the negative publicity.
“The committee determined that Linda Paul, Cate Cahan and Sonari Rhodes Glinton reported this story with flair and integrity,” said the judges. “Laced with empathy, a quality so difficult to achieve in radio-length reporting, the team uncovered, validated and gave voice to dispossessed children who spoke the truth but went ignored due to lack of influence.”