This story first appeared in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up for that here.
It was a peaceful ride down to Harrisburg, Illinois. I left early and watched the sun rise as I made my way past the corn fields. I've made the drive to southern Illinois to visit inmates in prison a number of times, but this was my first visit to Harrisburg. It's a long drive — around five hours — so I had time to think about the story and what I wanted to accomplish, and also to finish listening to the “S-Town” podcast.
Part of my reason for driving to Harrisburg was to interview Lavell Staples, who had been held in a juvenile correctional facility but was preparing to be transferred to the Illinois Department of Corrections when I met with him. He had been sentenced to four years in prison for shoving a guard at the Illinois Youth Center in Harrisburg. The juvenile center has had more youths sent to adult prison over the past two years for staff assaults than all of the state’s other juvenile facilities combined.
When I arrived at the Saline County Jail to meet Lavell, I had to sign in and then wait to be let in. I struck up a conversation with a couple of people waiting to see their family members. We went down the elevator together, and the inmates were waiting for us, all lined up behind a glass partition. Some were older. I think most people had family visiting. Lavell didn't.
We both picked up a handset to talk. It was hard at first to hear because everyone was in this open area talking, but once the interview got going, that background noise sort of fell away.
Lavell told me about his case, how he had put up paper to cover the window in his room. The guard told him to take it down, and when Lavell refused, he said he slid by the guard on his way out of the room. The guard said Lavell shoved him. Lavell said he thought it was wrong to send him to an adult prison for that. That’s when he said something that really stuck with me: “They sent me down here so they can throw me away.”
A lot of youths in the juvenile justice system have had difficult lives. They've been in trouble with the law and often have rocky home situations. In a way, I think they come to expect that bad things will happen to them.
Juvenile justice facilities are supposed to be places where troubled youths can be rehabilitated. Ideally, they serve time for the crime they committed and start anew. That didn't happen to Lavell.
It’s important to hear from people like Lavell because most people haven’t been in his position. Most people don’t know what it’s like to go from a juvenile facility to adult prison, which is where Lavell is now. It’s helpful to hear his perspective, his voice, as the person who is experiencing this.
I hope you’ll take the time to read about Lavell and others in our story this week.