Saving kids one at a time

It’s a fairly simple concept.

If you put a young criminal offender in with other criminals, they’ll learn how to be better criminals. If they do nothing, they’ll learn nothing and achieve nothing.

Mark Steward of the Missouri Youth Services Institute says his state realised its juvenile corrections system was failing about 40 years ago.

Juvenile offenders went into what was essentially a prison for young people and came out hardened criminals who – in most cases – committed crimes again.

St. Louis, Missouri, became a crime capital of the United States, with more murders per capita than any other large US city during several years.

“Missouri was plagued by so many problems in the past that back in the 1970s and 80s judges stopped sending kids to the state system because it was so horrible,” Steward says.

It was time to make a change and over the next 30 years a new model of juvenile corrections emerged; one Steward describes as more kid friendly.

The look of the facilities and the programmes used by the state to hold offenders younger than 17 slowly changed. Gradually, the state moved away from a prison-type environment for young offenders.

Today, recreational rooms at facilities like the Montgomery Youth Center look more like college dorms than prison cells. Very few kids are kept in a cell-like confinement at all, and almost never in solitary lock up.

Groups of juvenile offenders stick together. They are typically kept not more than two hours away from home while in the juvenile facility and family members are frequently invited to the centre to participate in rehabilitative sessions.

The Missouri Model places juvenile offenders in appropriate age groups based on the seriousness of their offences.

There are three care levels – low, moderate and secure – based on the risk level of the offender, which is based on a risk assessment. Daily activities are planned “from the time they get up to the time they go to bed”, Steward says.

Steward says that some have viewed the Missouri approach as soft, mollycoddling youth offenders, he calls it. But in reality, he says, it’s quite a bit tougher on both the youths themselves, as well as the facilities teachers’ and staff.

“Every kid in our system will tell you, it’s a lot easier…to do nothing and then you get out in a specified period of time,” Steward says. “In this programme, you participate. You have to get in there and deal with your issues. You have to show performance, you have to show improvement or you don’t get out.

“Some kids will try to fake it and get out, but that doesn’t happen in this programme. It’s a comprehensive approach of the staff and the kids working together to really fix that kid; change not just the behaviours that got him into trouble, but change the way he thinks.”

The rehabilitation process depends just as much on the other kids involved in the programme, he says. They learn by talking to each other in a moderated environment, always with a staff member, but speaking with each other on a regular basis.

“These kids will listen to each other much more than they’ll ever listen to us anyway,” says programme director Pili Robinson.

This rough outline of the Missouri model of juvenile corrections is what the Cayman Islands intends to use in its new juvenile rehabilitation facility.

Ministry of Community Affairs Chief Officer Dorine Whittaker says government officials have spent the last year studying it and other corrections models in the US and the UK.

“We didn’t want to build another prison based on what we’ve seen in research, what can happen to young people,” Whittaker says. “This facility is for people under 17, it’s not for hardcore criminals.”

Whittaker says Cayman will also begin on a more comprehensive approach to juvenile corrections, involving the Education Department, the prison system and various ministries in a combined approach.

“We are spending money right now…and if it was working it wouldn’t be in the state its in right now,” she says.

Deadline looms

Cayman is being forced by its 2009 Constitution to change the way it handles prisoners in general, as well as juvenile offenders specifically.

This is going to cost a significant amount of money and the changes are legally required by November 2013.

“We have just under three years to comply with segregation of juvenile prisoners from adult prisoners and convicted prisoners from remand prisoners,” Deputy Governor Donovan Ebanks told the Legislative Assembly in January. “These will involve a degree of capital expenditure for infrastructure.”

Ebanks says the cost of building a separate prison unit for remand prisoners – those who have not been convicted of any crime – has been estimated at $5.5 million for a 50-person facility. The cost of a youth offender facility has been estimated at $6.3 million. He expects those costs would be spread out over the next three years’ budgets, with the lion’s share coming next year in the 2011/12 spending plan.

“It should be noted that these costs do not include those related to staffing,” he says. “[This] causes further implications as the necessary staff are considered specialist staff that would be filling newly created positions.”

Right now, Cayman is being forced to send overflows of adult male prisoners to the Eagle House juvenile facility. Although the older and younger prisoners are still kept in separate cells, a certain amount of intermingling at the facility is unavoidable, government officials have said.

Whittaker is hopeful work on the new juvenile corrections facility in East End will start in July.

“It is going to be a facility that we build in cottages instead of a multi-purpose, big prison with all the guards and all the staff,“ she says. “That was one thing that the group were concerned about, if you build a big building, like a prison building and you need to step down, there’s no step down.”

By step down, Whittaker means a mid-way treatment facility that’s somewhere between a school and a prison lock up. She says not all juvenile offenders are best benefited by being kept in a prison-like environment.

In fact, most aren’t, according to Missouri corrections officials.

Steward says it doesn’t make any sense.

“Why are you wasting your money having 50 to 90 per cent of kids come back to prison after they’re released when in Missouri it’s less than 10 per cent? he asks. “A lot of people are afraid to make change…it’s real easy to run a juvenile prison, because you really don’t have to necessarily do much. You have to contain them, put them in a classroom and lock them in a cell, that’s pretty easy to do.”

Whittaker admits it will be impossible for Cayman to adopt all aspects of the Missouri model at its new juvenile corrections facility when it is built.

However, the government is already attempting a similar approach at the Bonaventure Boys home with the goal of getting kids back into the public school classroom.

“What we’re introducing at Bonaventure…is going to be trying to take the kids that are in the school system that may not be functioning,” she says. “We want to be able to deal with kids on a short-term basis down at Bonaventure, send them back to…do their behaviour modification in the education system.

“We don’t expect to be warehousing our kids in any form or fashion, and we don’t want kids to get stigma from attending there. We are going to keep as many kids in school as we possibly can. But in terms of where do we pay….we’re already paying, is it working is what we need to ask ourselves.”

Making change

Over the past decade, Steward says other US states have started noticing the results generated by the Missouri youth corrections programme.

Its stated recidivism rates for offenders within the past decade are about seven per cent – that means 93 per cent of the kids that go into the programme won’t be charged with an offence again.

Offenders are also allowed to be kept in the youth programme in Missouri until they turn 21, as long as their offence was committed prior to turning 17.

Whittaker notes other US states that reviewed the Missouri system indicated it would be difficult to implement a drastic change in philosophy.

“Texas was at that stage of saying ‘we’ve done this all along’,” she says. “‘We like this, but how are we doing to be able to change?’”

The problem, Steward says, is not so much getting the general public to buy in, but to get prison administrators to believe they can change a military-style youth prison to a more constructive environment.

“The general public, 99 per cent of them don’t know what goes on in the juvenile system,” Steward says. “What they care about is crime on the streets and they want it fixed. Political leaders and agency administrators must have the willpower to say ‘we’re going to make things change; it’s hard work.’”

The process of rehabilitating youth offenders in the Missouri system is highly individualised, according to programme administrator Robinson.

“What works with this kid might not work with this kid,” Robinson says. “It’s always about your real growth as an individual.”

But that individually focused re-education depends heavily on a juvenile offender’s interaction with their peer group. Offenders are rarely left alone.

“Sometimes when the group is doing real good and one kid is acting out, the easiest thing to do is grab that kid and take him out [of the room],” Robinson says. “What we say in our model is, nah. You spill a drink on the kitchen floor, you clean it up right here in the kitchen.”

Robinson says staff rarely leaves the kids alone during activities, and the Missouri facilities are specially designed to eliminate out of the way areas where bullying can occur.

“Kids that feel safe are going to feel safe to explore the emotional part of what’s going on in their lives,” he says.

Steward says this high-level monitoring usually requires staff that is college educated and who are trained teachers. It can add more costs on the front end, but Steward argues that it’s more expensive to deal with adult prisoners later on.

“That’s very expensive when you go in to build a new facility to putting in all the bars and cells they do in the prison,” he says. “Ours are open dorms with partitions in between. These kids can function like that with proper staffing and proper review. If you talk to staff in Missouri they’ll say ‘I love my job’.”

“Most of [the other states’ juvenile corrections facilities] look like prisons and they’re getting horrible results. And finally, people are starting to be held accountable – we’re giving you a budget of $200 million and you’re getting horrible results.”

According to the Cayman Islands prison service, the average cost of housing one adult male inmate for a year at Northward Prison was just more than $56,000 for the 2009/10 budget year.

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