Formerly incarcerated men

Michael Penny, from left, Willie Hobson and Renaldo Hudson, three formerly incarcerated men, are pictured April 21, 2021. Last year their sentences were commuted, and they shared their stories of reentry since leaving prison. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO – Michael Penny, 60, had his first run-in with police at age 11 after he broke into a car near the old Chicago Stadium. He said police “beat him up, tossed him around and left him in the dirt.”

Willie Hobson, now 69, was 10 or 11 when, he said, police handcuffed him and beat him in a patrol car on the way to the police station after he was hanging out with the “wrong crowd” on the West Side.

Research over the years has shown that the more often children are stopped by police officers, the more likely they are to report emotional trauma, and that police encounters with boys tend to increase crime instead of reducing it. The ongoing Northwestern Juvenile Project focuses on the mental health of delinquent juveniles, and newly released data examines what happens to youths who enter detention with psychiatric disorders.

Together with Renaldo Hudson, Penny and Hobson are ambassadors of the Illinois Prison Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization that works with current and formerly incarcerated people to educate the public about problems in Illinois’ prison system, sentencing laws and policies, and about legal reform. All three men were incarcerated when they were under 18.

Hudson, who is the director of education for IPP, dropped out of school after sixth grade and was shot by his brother at age 15 during a rampage in which several family members were shot, two of them fatally. Hudson, 57, said he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol after the shooting.

“I thought that was OK. ... I was a kid but had the responsibilities and liberties as an adult,” he said during an April 15 Zoom event, “Life in the System: Personal Reflections on Incarceration and Reentry.” The three men shared stories about their life sentences and their commutations last year by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“I was a troubled kid until adulthood,” Penny said. “My environment was such where you saw things that no kid should have saw, especially from a mental health perspective. I can honestly say I knew I was going to engage with the justice system; it was only a matter of time. That was the norm. In my neighborhood, all the teenagers were sent off to prison, and the next batch of them was up.”

The men, now middle aged, agree that their mental health was a factor in their incarceration. Hudson was in prison for 37 years, including 13 years on death row. Convicted of murder in 1983 and sentenced to death row at 19, Hudson said he was on drugs and hallucinating when he took a man’s life. Looking back, Hudson said, “I do believe that intervention, at the right time, would have made a difference in my whole life story.”

New data from the Northwestern Juvenile Project — a long-term study of mental health needs and outcomes of delinquent youths after detention — shows that those with one or more existing psychiatric disorders when they entered detention still had a disorder post-detention. Of the 1,829 study participants detained in Cook County’s Temporary Juvenile Detention Center between November 1995 and June 1998, 64% of males and 35% of females with a psychiatric disorder during detention still had a disorder 15 years later.

Despite a decrease in disorders over time, especially among females, the prevalence of psychiatric disorders 15 years later was still substantially higher than that found in the general population. Males fared worse, overall. Compared with females, males had more than three times the odds of still having a psychiatric disorder 15 years later.

Youths age 10 to 18  were interviewed in detention and reinterviewed up to 12 times during the 15-year study period through February 2015. The sample was broken down by  sex, race/ethnicity, age and legal status (juvenile or adult court). The study examined 13 psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol use disorder and drug use disorder, among others. Disruptive behavior and substance abuse disorders were the most common.

“We’ve been studying incarcerated populations for 40 years,” said Linda Teplin, the Northwestern project’s principal investigator and the moderator at the April 15 Zoom event. “These kids enter with a lot of psychiatric problems, and they continue because they never receive adequate treatment. And the blame is not just on the juvenile justice system, but these kids don’t get treatment when they go back to their communities.”

Jennifer Soble, executive director of IPP, agrees. She said incarcerated people with long sentences are treated as disposable and aren’t given access to the kind of mental health treatments they deserve. After release, they are often left to their own devices to find the help they need. She said that’s something that IPP and other  advocates are working  to change.

“Willie and Renaldo and Michael and many of our clients, as children, were exhibiting predictable mental health responses to environments that were horrifically stressful, where they were routinely subjected to trauma, to poverty, to abuse, to systemic racism,” Soble said. “And rather than recognizing their responses to those very triggering events as mental health responses, our society saw that as criminality and treated it as such.”

Hobson is going to see  a therapist for the first time May 10, and Penny and Hudson are  in treatment.

Teplin, the Owen L. Coon Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, studies incarcerated populations because she said she wants to redress disparities in services — especially mental health services to those living in poverty.

“What our study shows is that for many of these kids, the problems that they enter detention with don’t go away. And over the long term, it’s harmful to the individual, and it’s harmful to the country because they don’t work, they don’t make salaries, they don’t pay taxes. It’s dysfunctional for the country to have a disadvantaged group that we neglect,” Teplin said.

According to Karen Abram, associate director of the Northwestern Juvenile Project, clinical psychologist, and study co-author, detention centers can best help by screening youths for psychiatric problems; providing emergency services when needed; and carefully linking youths to community services upon release (or to care upon transfer to another criminal justice facility).

The Tribune reached out to Avik Das, chief probation officer and director of Cook County Juvenile Probation and Court Services. The department of the Office of the Chief Judge supervises employees that provide probation and provided this statement: “The Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) and its medical/mental health provider (Cook County Health) ensures screening and identification of mental health status and needs upon a youth’s admission to JTDC and throughout his or her period of detention. Regarding what happens upon a youth’s release from detention, health providers within JTDC ensure that referrals are made to community health care providers to ensure some continuity of mental health care.”

Krissie Fernandez Smith, licensed clinical psychologist and associate director of the Cook County Juvenile Court Clinic, said that while many juveniles are referred for additional services in the community once released from the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, there are any number of reasons why treatment is not continued, including stigma, difficulty getting the youths to treatment  and family stressors.

“More must be done to address the trauma that youth experience as a byproduct of systemic racism that often causes justice involvement in the first place,” said Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton.

Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide nonprofit advocacy group, said detention itself is punitive and traumatic, and has a negative impact on mental health. She said children shouldn’t be detained and a bill in the Illinois legislature would put a cap on the minimum age of prosecution,  ending detention of children ages 10 to 12.

“You’ve got to eliminate detention and get mental health treatment to the communities,” Clarke said.

“To address persistent psychiatric disorders,” Abram said, “detention centers must strive to ensure continuity of care as youth return to the community or are transferred to other correctional settings. Community services must include a comprehensive care plan that coordinates other areas of need — such as addiction, trauma, grief, school problems and poverty — and engages the youth’s family in services.”

Hudson said that, rather being prosecuted and sent away for the rest of his life, someone should have intervened  when he was 11.

“I think about the fact that when I was 11 years old, I was stopped once, and I could have been little Adam (Toledo) that was just murdered,” Hudson said. “I look at my life and think that I have the potential to do some great things now. So did he.”

He said he supports more mental health intervention. “There’s so much screaming about prosecutions, and giving the police more weaponry, rather than training them to stand down and stop shooting and saying to the prosecutors, stop over-prosecuting us and figure out how to bring us back to productive members of society, because we’re still citizens, even when we commit crimes.”


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