Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Frightened bureaucrats throttle our American freedoms

Bill McCaffrey, chief of CPS communications, in theory.
      Stories fill the paper, discussing certain issues, visiting various places, introducing particular people. Readers read them, never pausing to wonder how those stories got there. 
      Some are pitched by eager publicists, but more often a reporter had to press, make phone calls, send emails, cut through layers of bureaucracy, wheedling quotes and permission from hesitant administrators.
      I'm not complaining, it's part of the job. 
     Sometimes it works, and the story gets in the paper. Sometimes it doesn't. I've been doing this long enough to take disappointment along with success. But this one particular experience, well, let me tell you.     
     Several years ago, I thought about a story I did in 1986 at the Chicago public high school in the basement of the Cook County Jail. It was one of my favorite stories, because of the surprise, not just to find classes being held—teenage prisoners still must go to school—but because the teachers were so positive and enthusiastic, not at all what I expected. 
     Merely reposting the story here seemed lazy. Most of the teachers I quote are probably dead. I wanted to go back, to re-report it, see what had changed in three decades. I started with Tom Dart. He likes to show off the jail, but on his own terms, and the school didn't fit into his PR program. But gentle pressure, and the passage of a couple years, finally won permission.
     There was still a hitch. Though the school is in the jail, it's run by the Chicago Public Schools. You can't just walk in. So I started on the CPS last June, beginning with Judy Pardonnet in their communications office. I figured that gave me plenty of time to get it in the paper when school started.
     We eventually had a pleasant conversation on the phone, around July, and permission seemed forthcoming. Then nothing. She wouldn't return my emails or calls, and I tried for weeks. Finally, irked, I began what I call the "demon dialer" --- call her and call her and call her, every hour sometimes. Eventually she picked up. 
     She was apologetic, and passed the blame up to Bill McCaffrey, the chief of CPS public relations, pictured above. He won't allow it, she said, for reasons mysterious. 
     So I started trying to contact him.  July melted into August which morphed into September. He never responded. He never returned a call or an email. Earlier this month, Forrest Claypool, the head of CPS, came into the newspaper to talk to the editorial board about all the problems in the school system. I sat through 45 minutes of his spin, then approached him as he left and laid out what I wanted to do with the high school in the basement of the Cook County Jail..
      He said sure, talk to Bill McCaffrey. 
      At that point McCaffrey did phone me back, made some positive noises, then promptly disappeared again. I know the schools are in crisis, and there's lots to do. But he didn't have to write the story; all he had to do was give me permission. 
     For some reason I would not give up. I begged Kelley Quinn at the mayor's office to pressure Claypool—he and Rahm are supposed to be great pals, brother control freaks trying to herd the cats of civic government. I asked the publisher to intervene directly, and he did. 
       Nothing. Not even a reply. The CPS reaction to my simple, reasonable request for a mundane feature story is perhaps the most unprofessional performance I've encountered in 30 years of Chicago journalism, They lacked the consideration to even say "No" so I could stop asking. Just silence. Weeks and weeks. The September back-to-school moment has come and gone. 
     I give up, and am posting the story I liked so much from 29 years ago. It was an inoffensive thing, a nod to the hard work that teachers do, day in and day out, in the Cook County Jail. The teachers there now might want to ask their bosses why their efforts could not be showcased in the newspaper.
     I shudder to think why it was possible for a young freelancer to write it in 1986, but that months of steady pressure could not replicate it in 2015. We are a nation with freedom of the press, in theory, but that freedom is curtailed and hobbled by fearful government bureaucrats who lack faith in themselves, in their organizations and in their employees, and so gag them, not realizing that the gag is a worse indictment than anything they might say. Those terrified of bad publicity use that fear to bat away good publicity, then wonder why all the news about them is bad.
     Bottom line: our American freedom erodes, undermined, not by foreign enemies, but by domestic cogs.  
     Enough.  I tried my best. When Forrest Claypool moves on to his next posting, building his resume for his mayoral run in 2018—Rahm's definitely done after this term—I will try again with the next head of CPS. It's was an interesting story, then, and I bet it would be interesting now.
     Until that happy day: This ran in the Sun-Times on August 5, 1986 under the headline, "Headline:Enthusiastic students flock to jail's classrooms behind bars." It's quite long, but that's how we did it once upon a time. 

     At first glance, the rooms could be any classrooms anywhere.
     They have all the right equipment - desks, chalkboards, globes, handmade mobiles and construction paper silhouettes of Lincoln and Washington stapled to bulletin boards. Above the chalkboards are green strips with large alphabets of cursive writing.
     If it weren't for the Sheriff Richard J. Elrod calendars hanging in each room, you might expect a group of laughing fifth-graders to return from recess at any moment.
     When the students do arrive, they are all wearing the lone school color - beige. They wear the same beige T-shirts and beige cotton pants. Stenciled on the back of the shirts and the pants are "D.O.C." - Department of Corrections. This is the basement of the Cook County Jail, where the Board of Education runs a high school 12 months a year.
     The students are between 17 and 20 years old - the youngest group in the jail. They attend classes from four to five hours a day in a broad range of subjects, taught by 50 full-time teachers.
     If the cheery, standard classrooms come as a surprise, the teachers are even more so. Rather than being a burnt-out group of gritty survivors, filled with tales of the frustration of trying to teach hardened street toughs, they are enthusiastic to the point of zeal, and say they prefer teaching in the jail environment to teaching in the regular public school system.
     "My students are the nicest group in the world," said Daniel Fitzgerald, who teaches during the year at the Nettelhorst School and spends his summers teaching at the jail.
     "If I had this kind of demeanor in the school year, my teaching would be a breeze. I've been coming here for the past four summers, and it's a real pleasure. I had a student today thank me about four times for helping him with a new math problem. All the way to the door - thanks again, thanks again, thanks again. I would never get that at my school."
     According to Phillip T. Hardiman, executive director of the jail, teaching positions at the school are in great demand from other teachers in the school district. Many of the teachers in the jail have been there for more than 20 years, and few leave prematurely.
     "In order (for a new teacher) to get into the jail school, one of our teachers has to die or retire," said Hardiman.
     "Most people have a misconception of what it is like in jail - they think of bars, inmates with tin cups," said Robert Glotz, director of security at the jail. "The funny part is (teachers) are far safer here than in a grammar school or high school."
     "We have very, very few discipline problems, if any, here in the jail," said Andrew Miller, who began teaching in the jail in 1956. "As a matter of fact, my role as assistant principal is primarily involved with having each student placed in the appropriate classroom setting. There is very little disciplining needed."
     But because the teachers enjoy what they do does not mean their job is an easy one. The majority of teens who come into the jail are dropouts with emotional and developmental problems and reading levels that average around the fifth grade. They are frequently hostile toward the idea of school and are lacking in self-esteem. On top of everything, there is no way to control how long they will be in the school. Stays in jail range from a few days to two years, with the average stay being around a month, so the teachers face classes that are constantly changing.
     "You have to be a special individual to work in that setting," said John Gibson, who was principal at the school for 5 1/2 years and is now principal at John Marshall High School. "They're working with a clientele that puts great demands on the teachers. A lot is taken out of a person.
     "The high turnover is one of the major problems. You may begin to see attitudinal changes, and then the student is gone. Teachers, like anyone else, like to see results - it's hard to work with a young person for three weeks or three months and suddenly that student is gone. It takes a special kind of person to deal with it."
     Gibson said the teachers in the jail have to be sincere, committed and dynamic because that's the only way to reach the students in jail.
     "Otherwise the students would simply come in and put their heads on the desk and that would be the end of it," he said, adding that the enthusiasm among jail teachers tends to be "contagious," passing from older to younger teachers.
     Despite the disappointments often found in a jail environment, the teachers all have their tales of success, such as the one about the student who earned his high school equivalency degree in the jail and went on to graduate magna cum laude from Northern Illinois University.
     And there's the man who approached Andrew Miller in San Francisco, stuck out his hand, smiled, and said, "You're Mr. Miller. You said something to me in the basement of the Cook County Jail that changed my life. . . ."
     Even if a student is not reached by the teachers at Cook County Jail, they hope that perhaps some good still can result from their efforts.
     "Even if we are unable to have the kind of success we expect with youngsters, we believe that attitudes are being changed about schools," said Gibson. "When they begin to experience success in the classroom, that spills over to younger siblings - or children. Many of them have children of their own. We know some of this is taking place. It pays dividends to larger society for years to come." 

     As far as the classes themselves, they tend to stress practical information and life skills. Thus, the science class will focus on public health or drugs, while in history the class learns about such basic Chicago information as the name of the mayor and the tallest buildings.
     Despite their veneer of street sophistication, the teens in the jail need this rudimentary information.
     "Those great big semi-adults with beards and muscles - they are fathers, they've committed all kinds of crimes and have all kinds of venereal diseases," said Miller. "These great big grown men have not learned the first thing about how to take care of themselves. They can't put a stamp on an envelope - to put a stamp on a letter you have to write letters, and they don't write. So they put the stamp on the wrong corner."
     In a recent class, Anthony Picciola had his students answer a series of multiple choice questions about their feelings - how they react when in a group, when happy, sad, angry. The class had several purposes - to get the students to read aloud, to think about themselves, to learn to discuss their emotions and participate in a group.
     Jesse Lee, the jail social worker, stopped by on his rounds and gave the group a pep talk.
     "You gotta be prepared," he said. "You gotta have a plan."
     He walked over to the desk of a student named Bob - a young man with a thin mustache and tossled hair - and asked him what kind of sports he played. Bob, in jail on charges of residential burglary stemming from his $100-a-day cocaine habit, stared at his desk while he answered - his feet constantly tapping, his fingers drumming on the table.
     He played tight end in football, he said, left field in baseball. Lee, seizing on the sports connection, made an analogy between having a realistic game plan and winning the game, trying to get the students to see the need for foresight and planning in their own lives.
     "I don't think you're gonna get a person in here saying, `We're looking for coke abusers - all the coke abusers line up, we've got jobs for you.' " Lee said.
     "This is what makes the school go, the staff," said Miller. "We have a fantastic staff. Our social worker staff are just crackerjacks. Our staff is especially trained to handle the difficult boy. Most of the youngsters are dropouts who happen to get in trouble with the law. They come here and, maybe for the first time in his life, someone listens. For the first time, he has structure and discipline. This is something he badly needs and, believe it or not, these boys welcome that."


  1. if things were going great, they wouldn't keep you from writing about the school. Seems to me they are hiding something.

  2. You give them too much credit. The truth is they have no idea what the school is like. They didn't even know it was THERE until I told them.

  3. Perhaps you can write about any jail school in Will County. They might allow you faster access. Try Stateville near Joliet.

    Hope you are right about Rahm being gone with the next election. But he did get a lot of dirty laundry left over from the Daley admin.

  4. Terrific column. It would have been extraordinarily delightful had you found Andrew Miller to be still around.


  5. This has me so angry I can hardly see straight.

    Let's ignore the truism that bad publicity is still better than no publicity.

    Here's a guy who wants to write a positive story about the school system and it's employees, and all this high paid sack of crap has to do is answer the phone and say "Yeah, whatever", and apparently that's too much work.

    Sure, there will be some people around here fuming about wasting our tax money on this idea, when the prisoners should just pick up trash 24/7, but let's be honest: Forrest Claypool, Tom Dart, and this schmuck don't have to worry about their next election or next job. Who cares if someone complains about it? Wouldn't you want people to know that you're trying to help people so they can lead productive lives and not burden the jail system?

    1. That was my thinking, put more frankly than I was willing to put it. To be honest, I had to post it here so I would stop pushing. It was starting to infect my mind.

  6. Great story. Glad you posted it, because I missed it the first time.

    The greatest example I ever heard of a writer getting around obstacles to writing a story about prison was Ted Conover. He wanted to write about prisons in New York State and kept getting turned down. He then applied for a job as a prison guard, got accepted, went through the training and was assigned to Sing Sing. The result was "Newjack," the most fascinating book about the prison experience I ever read. (Even though Conover had written several other books already, nobody ever found out he was a writer while he held the guard job. I can only surmise that the people who do the hiring for the New York corrections department don't communicate with the PR people.)

    1. I think that Lion King court ruling made that kind of undercover work illegal, unfortunately, as a species of fraud. Our First Amendment rights are crumbling.

    2. I think you mean Food Lion, but yes, that is a shame. (Although the damage award was reduced to $2 on appeal.)

  7. Great story shining a positive light, I bet the morons don't even know about the school.

  8. Great story shining a positive light, I bet the morons don't even know about the school.

  9. If this shames them into giving you permission, and it should, will you go?

    1. In a heartbeat. But it won't. They won't even contact me. Because, remember, they're cowards. That's the bottom line here.

  10. Welcome to my world, Neil.


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