Markel Ellis was one of the young people in Mikva’s Juvenile Justice Council last year who spearheaded the redesign of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) in Chicago to make it more comfortable and less intimidating for young people.

“Who wants to be 16, 17 sometimes 11 years old and be put inside the juvenile justice system,” said Markel. “So we started to come with ideas of how we can make it more comfortable for youth in the juvenile justice system,” he added.

This was no small task. The biggest hurdle was to convince people around them that this was a task worth undertaking. Most people didn’t see a need to make youth who’re part of the system comfortable at all. They were in jail for a reason so why the need to make spaces friendly? Why paint the walls, and decorate the visitation room, or put murals up at the Chapel? This was no place to stay, it was a place to serve time and feel the consequences of your actions.

The Facilities Director for Cook County Bilqis Jacobs-El and the Superintendent of the JTDC Leonard Dixon and his staff, met with the youth from the Council to listen to their redesign ideas. Some of the youth who had been in the system previously shared their experiences with the adults in the room and brought to their attention the human side to all this.

“The JJC reminded us of basic humanity through their care and concern for other children whose experiences resulted in JTDC residency. They decided to do what society has not, extend a hand to their counterparts. The children aged 10-18, shackled at times, who sometimes peer, one eye at a time from a small glass window in their cell doors. These are children who carry the burden for poor decision making and bad behavior of adults, whether parents, community leaders, or elected/appointed officials. Are underperforming schools their fault? Is homelessness, insufficient healthcare, violence and post-traumatic disorders from exposure to violence their fault? Is abuse and unsafe communities their fault?” wrote Bilqis in a letter praising the Council for their redesign work.

In the end, by giving young people a seat at the decision making table, changes were made, both to the physical appearance of the JTDC and to the perspective of adults who manage the facilities and interact with the hundreds of young people who come in contact with the system everyday. This is the power of authentic adult-youth partnerships.

Read the letter written by Bilqis Jacobs-El, Director, Facilities Management at Cook County, about her partnership with Mikva’s Juvenile Justice Council.