With Quinn’s prison plan fate uncertain, IYC-Joliet workers confined to wait
By Tina E. Akouris firstname.lastname@example.org September 22, 2012 10:08PM
Laverne Walker-Riddle and her daughter MarTajia, 9, at their home on Joliet's east side Thursday, September 20, 2012. The 15-year Juvenile Justice Specialist at the Illinois Youth Center in Joliet stands to lose her job unless she transfers to another state facility. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times
Updated: October 24, 2012 6:04AM
JOLIET — LaVerne Walker-Riddle lives at the end of a dead-end road in the Forest Park neighborhood in a modest home with her three adopted children.
She’s worked at the Illinois Youth Center in Joliet for the past 15 years as a juvenile justice specialist, supporting her children, one of whom is a 9-year old with spina bifida and needs to go to the hospital twice a week for treatments. Still, Walker-Riddle’s life was moving along with some sense of normalcy until Feb. 22, when Gov. Pat Quinn announced plans to close IYC-Joliet.
Now, her immediate future is a bit more uncertain.
“I’m in shock and frustrated,” Walker-Riddle said. “I waited to be secure in my job to adopt my three children (after being a foster parent), and I’m a single mother. I have specialized kids, and they are really needy. They didn’t ask for this.”
Quinn proposed closing IYC-Joliet and other prisons across the state as part of a cost-cutting maneuver aimed at closing a gaping state budget hole. Quinn’s administration has claimed many of these facilities are either outdated, underused or too expensive to run.
If IYC-Joliet closes, 225 people could be out of work, and 219 inmates — 17- to 21-year-olds who are considered among the most violent youth in Illinois — will scatter to other facilities around the state.
Earlier this month, however, a southern Illinois circuit judge stalled Quinn’s prison closure plan with a temporary restraining order that delayed shutdowns and inmate transfers to give time for the state and employees’ union to address safety concerns. Both sides were given 30 days to hash out an agreement. Nevertheless, the Quinn administration has said the ruling would not effect IYC-Joliet because it’s not scheduled to close until Oct. 31.
Much has been said about where the inmates could go, but there’s also the workers’ stories and what may happen to them — will they be able to find a decent juvenile justice job somewhere closer such as in St. Charles? Or they will have to take a job in the faraway reaches of the state such as Harrisburg or Kewanee.
If there are no jobs left at other facilities, they could wind up unemployed.
Walker-Riddle, 52, has two teenagers, Marvin and MarKisha, who attend Joliet West High School, and 9-year-old MarTajia, who attends Sanchez Elementary School.
All three were born with some type of fetal alcohol and drug syndrome. But MarTajia, who has spina bifida, is perhaps the most in need of medical care. Walker-Riddle has to take MarTajia to both Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood and Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago once a week.
“I’m a single parent,” Walker-Riddle said. “It’s not going to be easy if I’m laid off.”
‘I’m that guy who came back’
Matt Morthland knows how to take a hit — literally.
The 29-year old injured his right wrist breaking up a fight at the facility Aug. 12, pulling a ligament in his wrist and going back to work shortly thereafter on light duty.
“I can’t do much,” Morthland said. “But showing up is good enough for me.”
That’s pretty much all anyone needs to know about Morthland’s attitude: he puts the needs of others ahead of his own.
Case in point: Morthland took a hit in April when he asked to be transferred back to Joliet from the IYC facility in Harrisburg, knowing his chances of finding another job in Illinois’ juvenile justice system could be ruined if Joliet closes.
Upon learning that Joliet would likely close, Morthland took a transfer to Harrisburg, where he is from originally. But after being there a few weeks, Morthland had a change of heart. He wanted to go back to Joliet and ride out the sinking ship.
“I couldn’t leave these people,” said Morthland, who has worked in the state’s juvenile justice system for three years. “I felt like I left a place that needed me. I’m that guy who came back.”
There are about seven married couples who work at IYC-Joliet, and AFSCME local No. 1753 union President Sharon Konopka and her husband, Mark, are one of them.
Konopka is a juvenile justice youth and family specialist and Mark is a shift supervisor. Konopka has worked in the system for about 20 years — the last 14 of them in Joliet — and Mark has worked at IYC since 2002, coming over after Valley View closed.
“We rarely fight, because he knows what I’m going through,” Sharon Konopka said. “We had a Plan B (for when Joliet closes), but the state decided that Joliet workers could not pick where they wanted to go.”
The couple has discussed moving to Harrisburg or into adult facilities, but it is hard for them to plan their next move with their lives in limbo. Konopka said employees have not received any layoff packets yet.
So everyone waits.
‘I pray to God 400 times a day’
Juvenile justice specialist Matthew Petty, 35, tries to shield his wife from the potential closure. But his 9-year old son, Noah, knows what’s going on.
Petty brought Noah to a pension reform rally in Springfield, and the boy made a T-shirt that read: “Dear Gov. Quinn, please don’t take my dad’s job. — Noah.”
But all the rallying and protesting aside, sometimes people rely on the most innocent forms of keeping hope alive.
“I pray to God 400 times a day to keep my job open,” Petty said. “I do good deeds to get extra credit … somewhere. I wish on eyelashes and shooting stars and pennies.”
‘We will walk tall’
Morthland knows from experience that going to and from Harrisburg is a haul. Located in far southeastern Illinois — 57 miles southwest of Evansville, Ind., and 111 miles southeast of St. Louis — Harrisburg is about a five-and-a-half hour drive from Joliet.
For many families of incarcerated youth at IYC-Joliet who are from the West Side of Chicago or other parts of the city, it’s more than a six-hour drive — and that’s if they have their own car. Many families get to Joliet by public transportation or even a cab if they don’t drive.
The long haul these employees have been through since Feb. 22 may culminate in IYC-Joliet’s closing. The incarcerated, their families and the workers who tried to rehabilitate them will scatter across the state.
Until then, there is still some hope behind the razor wire.
“We will walk tall together, until the day they lock us out,” Morthland said. “Everyone is walking tall, from the maintenance workers to the administrators.”