Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Juvenile Correctional Center

The Juvenile Correctional Center

This story starts way back in October. The phone rang. I answered. The voice of a young man said " I'm Principal at Westside School. We need a substitute for three weeks, from Thanksgiving week to Christmas vacation". As this request was more work than I had done in the last two years combined, I readily agreed.

Then, I started asking all the questions I should have asked first. "Is Westside the school north of the high school?" "No, we are out at the Kansas State Hospital." (For all you Louisiana types, that is the Kansas equivalent of "Pineville".) "We are in the Juvenile Correctional Center".

Now I try to dodge the bullet. "Do I need a teaching certificate?" "Well, yes. I suppose you do." he says with disappointment in his voice. "Mine expired in August, and the substitute certificate I applied for has not come in… They said it might be six weeks or so before they can process it." It only needed to be one day late for me to miss this assignment. (What a heart breaker.)

About the first week of November, Principal calls again to inquire as to the status of my certificate. "Sorry, I haven't gotten anything yet." Then I call the State of Kansas to inquire for myself… "No, I'm sorry, I don't see where any action has been done on that." "… phew, dodged a bullet." says I to myself.

That call was probably a mistake, because, a few days later the completed certificate arrived in the mail. Its arrival was followed a day or so later by a call from Principal, who elatedly informed me the certificate had been approved and I should get it in the mail soon. (I did not tell him it was laying next to the phone.) I realized I was on the hook and was looking for a way to wiggle off when he invited me to come in for a tour of the facility. I could keep my original poorly thought out agreement, or admit I was a coward.

Somewhere in the Bible it says something like "If your word is no good, calling down God as a witness adds nothing to its worth." Which forces one to evaluate the value of ones own word. For myself, I would like to think my word has some value. Also, there is a saying like "Put up or shut up." Perhaps Principal was wondering why it was taking so long for me to accept his invitation… a question that shall be answered later.

I accepted his invitation, and went to "Westside School" a few days later for my tour. If one ignores all the surrounding buildings one passes on the way in (The ones with sixteen foot fences and razor wire tops), Westside appears, from the outside, as any school might. Stepping in the door ends any illusion… very heavy glass, steel doors, and locks all around, quickly bring the reassessment.

I don't remember exactly who greeted me. The first lesson I learned followed quickly as the nice officer directed me to his metal detector. After several passes I was down to my pants, underwear, and socks. When I came back for work I selected clothes with plastic closures so as not to have to strip every day,

A fair amount of information was passed to me by the great size of the smiles on Principal's and Coach's faces as we introduced ourselves. It was clear they were in a bind and I was their man to get them out of it. Presumably the frown on my face passed information in their direction.

Second lesson, every door is locked. Most electronic locks had a four second delay from activation to open. Everyone carried a ID tag with picture that activated these locks. Most other door locks were controlled by the security center and covered by camera. One pressed a button nearby to call attention to ones need. A small number of doors had keyed locks. One retrieved ones set of keys from a code locked cabinet in a locked room before going into the metal detector. A later count revealed five locked doors between Coach/my office and the teachers' lounge/admin offices. Without keys and badge that move could not be made.

I saw a group of "youth residents" (YR) moving quietly down the hall under the direction and watchful eye of a "Juvenile Corrections Officer"(JCO). I was to learn that was almost the only time YR's were quiet or followed direction. In the gym classes I directed, "control" had a fair resemblance to " herding cats" unless the activity was agreeable to the YRs or, the "Activity Therapist" (AT) and one or more JCOs threw their weight into the task. To be fair, my fourth hour class was a group of four YRs that had earned their way into a special class for "honor" students. These young men were pleasant, cooperative, hardworking guys. Actually the sort you would like to have in the real schools, and seldom have. But, for my tour, that was all in the future.

I asked Coach what sorts of guys were in the JCC. His reply: "murders, rapists, thieves, armed robbers, drug dealers, gang bangers, mentally unstable... just about every kind of criminal there is... " I could have done without that information.

After seeing way more than I wanted to see, I was being ushered toward the last few of the locked doors, on my way out. Here, I decided, was the time for negotiations. They offered me a day of paid training to get up to speed on procedures. I asked for three. We settled on two and a half. I would use Coach's passwords, instead of creating a new set, and his keys. With those things settled I admitted that except for bailing a boss out of jail, (at three am) the JCC was the only jail I had ever been in. Then I asked "Do you guys realize how scary this place is?" A synchronized positive nod answered that question.  "Have any others come on your tour?" brought another synchronized nod. Then I followed with "Did they come back?" which brought a synchronized negative shake of heads. For sure, I was in too deep to escape. I agreed to come back.

Off topic... many things there began with JC. It reminded me of working at Texas Instruments where many things began with TI. The most amusing acronym was for "Texas Instruments Language Translator" (TILT) this was a computer program that, with proper input, could translate anything written in the normal keyboard character set into anything else written in the normal keyboard character set. That is to say for any language besides Chinese and the Arabic languages. it could translate one language into any other, including the many computer languages. My friend, then, who was one of the few experts in TILT was heard to say "If you ever tried to learn TILT you would understand why they called it that."

On topic... My first few days at JCC, aka Westside School were high stress, fear filled hours for me. Lesson number three was that no one touched anyone else. Some of the tiniest disputes exploded into shouting, gesticulating contests between YRs, JCOs, and ATs. I got out of the way fast!! But, no one ever touched... at least where I was. (I heard radio calls directing JCOs to fights in the resident areas.)

Every staff member carried a "man down" box, some with buttons, others with plugs. When activated the box produced a radio signal that alerted central security as to its location. Central security radioed all JCOs, and some came running (literally). I witnessed one "man down" call from a long hall and saw a young JCO dash, full speed, more than 50 yards before going out of sight. Apparently the flow of JCOs to a trouble area continued until one present reported the situation under control. I asked Coach if his box had ever failed, "yes, but I just went to the JCO there and used his." "Do they work every where?" " No, in some areas outside they do not work. Once when that happened to me, I just threw it toward an area I knew worked and it activated the alarm." Then "don't worry it is too cold to go outside now anyway." And he was right except for one day.

A conflict in my area drew the AT who assisted me, six or seven JCOs and a supervisor type before the inflow was stopped. One person was two feet from the YR causing the commotion. The rest formed a close circle around these two. Shouting was the main form of communication until the supervisor arrived. The circle expanded enough to let him in. The JCO facing the YR joined the circle. Here a few more shouts were exchanged. Then the supervisor began to speak in a soft, calm voice. The YR continued his ranting, but the JCOs expanded the circle until they were ten or twelve feet from the center. The YR backed against a wall and the JCOs formed a semicircle with a radius of twelve feet. After three or four more minutes the YR showed an inclination to calm down. Under the direction of the supervisor he started to move toward the door. Some of the JCOs dropped out of the circle and it collapsed to the six foot diameter that followed the YR out of the gym and into the hall. Next day, the YR was back in class as if the previous blowup had not happened.

When a man down signal goes off, much of the facility is locked down and most movement is stopped, by the simple expedient of disabling all the electronic locks and the locks activated by the central control. One such blowup happened while I was in the office area, It was nearly a half hour before I was able to go back to the gym. Fortunately my classes were over at that time.

Other blowups were less dramatic, needing two to four JCO to form the circle and move the YR along. If things got serious later, the YR was "locked down" for a number of days and did not reappear.

The well behaved YRs got increasing numbers of privliges. If this continued they were given blue shirts to indicate as much. Some with blue shirts would not wear them. Privilages included electronic games, television, and later bedtimes. Some YRs assisted with the tasks of running the place, janitorial work, delivering meals to locked down inmates, etc. Well behaved guys had access to better classes, cooking in the "restaurant" that sold meals to the staff, and better Physical Education classes. Those that earned a high school diploma or passed their GED were allowed to work on Technical Skill Certificates and Associate Degrees through Barton Community College (classes were held in house).

Coach allowed (required) me to select  my own class activities. Unfortunately I had never heard of them (designed for indoor activities) before that time, except for Basketball (reserved for the last class day of the week) team Dodge ball, and indoor softball played with a wiffle  ball. That left 12 days… The ATs and the YRs were familiar with them so that lessened the load. Except, of course, most were unpopular, or there were not enough YRs to make teams. Reverting to Basketball, a favorite, was a no no.

Lesson number four was that attempting to do the agility exercises, and failing, earned me some affection from most of the YRs. I could not run four lengths of the  gym without becoming completely winded. Remaining standing during some of the pretzel stretches was another failure. Why, is the question. Perhaps I became more human and less intimidating with weaknesses. Lesson number five was that after this, "Please" worked a few times to calm things, or to move things along. It also brought certain students to my aid before things could get out of hand. Later, when asked to write reviews of students behavior, I was able to repay these few.

When listening to other staff discussing YR behavior, some of my better charges were some of their worst. However, it never paid to relax your guard. One day one of my best blew up like a bomb over a non issue. (he was to get a zero for the day for non participation, if the sick bay did not verify that he was sick. It was a non issue because, his A was way beyond danger and the sick bay verified he was indeed sick.). Less important issues resulted in similar reactions. Actually, I cannot now recall any important issue ever coming up. Never relax!

After the first full week, unjustified fear resolved itself and was replaced by high tension in anticipation of the realities of the situation. In the end I was able to brave up, which lead to the following… One YR was fully refusing to follow my directions. I walked up to him and shouted at him. His response was to send a stream of verbal abuse at me personally. I moved closer, put my face in his, and smiled and said "son. I know you could not care less about what I say. What you need to know is that I could not care less about what you say". It probably worked because cursing at other staff always brings a huge negative reaction. Of course I refrained from my two favorite comebacks: "I bet you learned that in fifth grade" and "Do you even know what that means?" The YR sat down and caused no further problems.

Some YRs were pure Dr. Jeckle/ Mr. Hyde, while others all one or all the other. There is a thing called "good time" , apparently given to long term residents. It is taken away for bad behavior. Good time shortens the sentence, sort of time off for good behavior. I asked one of the variable guys why threats to remove good time did not restrain him from bad behaviors. "Well, I got no good time left."

YRs enter or get released whenever… I tried to offer encouragement to one that entered a couple of weeks before I left. He claimed he wanted to be a registered nurse. His scholastic record showed the only high school class he had passed in the past four years was a C in welding. He behaved very well in my class for about a week and a half. Other Teachers said he was lazy in their classes. He had started his slide downward in mine before I left. I guess in that environment, encouragement only goes so far.

Another surprise was the reaction a group of YRs had to my discussion of the return rate to JCC/prison. They were shocked to be told one in three of them would not make it on the outside, and that two of three in the big house would return there. "Not us" they all chimed. We can always hope. (The actual return rate for that unit was slightly under 30%)

On one of my basketball days, all ten YRs, in one class, agreed to play (Unusual!!) then they played a fierce 45 minute full court game, without a break. Except for rebounds and an occasional steal, there was no defense at all. Yes, fierce, and fun to watch. Most other classes had varying amounts of conflict over dressing out, getting dressed at the end, rules and umpire rulings, who said what to whom… you name it. Constant noise, constant stress. I have not checked to see if my blood pressure is going down yet.

 The school district supplies the teaching staff under contract to the state penal system. The school district paid me $100 a day for the first two days and shorted me for the half day. Substitutes with real certificates get that. My real certificate expired in August and I got an uncertified certificate to continue as a substitute. The uncertified get $85 per day. I went to the Westside principal and pointed out that I was no longer certified and should only have been paid the lower amount. Then I went to the holder of the purse strings at the school district and gave them the same information. I stressed they still owed me $12.50 for the half day even though they over paid for the first two days.

When the supplemental check for the half day came in the mail, it showed payment for the higher rate. $50 not $12.50. When I went back to inquire about that mistake, I was told " Well, Mr. Watson, we know that you were once a certified professional and we decided to treat you as one." That may even make me eligible for the rule that pays $169 a day after ten consecutive days, We will see when the rest of the money comes in January.

I was discussing the other-worldliness atmosphere of the JCC with one of the YRs, suggesting I would do almost anything to avoid spending an extra minute there, much less a whole day (that he could loose, of good time, if he misbehaved). He came back "What are you doing here then?" "Well, I gave my word…"

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