Note from Al Zimbler: While I normally write humorous short stories — mostly fiction and a few nonfiction — I wrote this serious nonfiction story because the following experience made such an impression on me.
We live in our own suburban environment, hardly knowing of others outside our area and definitely not knowing of their way of life. Our weekly newspapers have a page with reporting on petty crimes in the area, be it burglary, driving while intoxicated, selling or distributing narcotics, and vandalism. In most cases these culprits get a fine and probation but not always. Sometime it’s off to jail. A lot depends on their age. If 17 or under they appear at the Cook County Juvenile Building on Chicago’s west side where their cases are heard.
A group of people of which I am a member took a tour of the Cook County Juvenile Building and sat in one of the courtrooms to listen to cases involving juvenile crimes. This building is where all of Cook County juveniles are sent for hearings. There is the criminal division and the domestic violence division. Our group had received clearance beforehand and everyone had to go through security upon entering the building.
It was heartbreaking to see youngsters under the age of 17 brought before the judges in handcuffs, although not all were in handcuffs. Many of these juveniles had been here more than one time. The new offenders looked frightened and were usually represented by a public defender while an assistant state’s attorney handled the case for the state. With an understanding judge and with some luck the case might be dismissed or the juvenile put on probation.
The next stop on the tour was the Cook County boot camp for prisoners aged 18 thru 35 sent here for minor crimes. These prisoners are lucky for they have qualified to be sent to this boot camp, the only one in the United States located in a major city I understand, instead of some distance away in a sparse farm area.
These prisoners were deemed by the judge as having a chance for redemption and, instead of going away for two or three years, they have been sent to the boot camp. The program is for a four-month period and then an eight-month supervision program where they wear monitors and, if working, have to check in only once a week. If not working they have to check in every single day.
They wear red prison attire and are housed in barracks on the grounds. Our docent explained that each barracks has about 45 prisoners where they sleep under the watchful eye of guards. The guards in the camp do not carry any guns or mace. The only armed personnel are the guards at the front entrance to the facility.
These prisoners start at 5:30 am and end at 5:30 pm. They wear different color baseball caps to indicate at what stage they are in as far as how long they have been in the compound. The first hat is white and the last is orange. There are school facilities for prisoners to get their GED certificates.
Discipline is tough and there is no talking to each other. In fact, they have to ask permission of the guards in order to go to the bathroom, to shower, or to talk to the drill sergeants. No matter what the weather they have to be on the parade grounds most of the day, except when there is lightning in the air.
The mess hall feeds the 250 prisoners and staff within one hour. There is a 2800 calorie maintenance for the prisoners. There is no pork served and the prisoners are not allowed to talk to each other when eating. They must sit with their feet together and march into the mess hall and out of the mess hall on command from the guards.
This might seem a little inhuman but the boot camp is run to instill discipline so that, when the prisoners return to society, they will be able to handle orders from their bosses. And remember, the boot camp is a lot better than being in the Cook County jail.
Visitors are allowed on Saturday and Sunday and there is no touching between prisoners and visitors. If any takes place, the visitation rights are forever cancelled. There is no smoking, no TV, no radio. The prisoners can read, write, and shine their boots. Their barracks contain bunks and each prisoner has a luggage box and a chair. After dinner there is no more food as there is not a commissary or any vending machines.
You must remember these are prisoners who have broken the law and are being given a chance to get back on the straight and narrow. Any fights breaking out among prisoners will result in both fighters immediately being sent to the Cook County jail to finish their two- or three-year sentence, instead of the possible four-month stay at the boot camp.
This tour was an eye opener for all of us in the group.
© 2017 Albert Zimbler
Albert Zimbler is a 92-year-old author of six humor short story books on Amazon of which MORE DATING AND MATING SECRETS OF SENIORS AND OTHER HUMOR SHORT STORIES is the latest. He also teaches senior improv. Click here to see his Amazon author profile.