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    Books off limits in youths' cells

    Reading is encouraged, but not in offenders' cells because officials fear books may become weapons and tools for vandals.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 21, 2001


    Talk to just about anyone who works in the juvenile justice system, and they'll tell you education is one of the keys to helping turn troubled kids away from crime.

    But when young people are housed inside cells in juvenile detention centers across Florida, they generally are barred from reading books.

    Reading is allowed in detention centers' classrooms and recreation areas. But once these youths are sent to their individual cells, books are considered contraband -- dangerous items that can be used to fashion weapons or help someone escape.

    Youths were allowed to read in their cells in the past, but "unfortunately for the most part that privilege has been abused," said Don Goff, regional chief of detention for the state Department of Juvenile Justice. He said in many cases books "were used for things other than reading."

    Some question whether books pose such a threat that they should be kept out of the hands of young people who are locked up.

    "It's a little bit of a stretch to believe the book-as-weapon theory," said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children, an advocacy group. "I know the old expression "They threw the book at them,' but I don't really believe it's a daily occurrence."

    Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada, who handles juvenile delinquency cases and others, said he didn't know that books were generally not allowed in cells. He said he could understand the security concerns and did not want to minimize them.

    Nonetheless, he said, "there are other ways of handling certain problems other than denying all children's reading materials in their cells."

    "I would hope that if a child wanted to read something ... I would think that's something we should not only encourage but also assist in," Quesada added.

    Florida's 25 detention centers are similar to jails in the adult system. They house youths as young as 7 years old who have been accused of crimes in the juvenile justice system. Most stay for no more than 21 days while awaiting a court hearing, but a few can be incarcerated for months as they await placement in long-term rehabilitation programs.

    While living in a detention center, youngsters go to school five days a week. They also have supervised recreation time each day and are allowed to read during that time. Books are available at each site.

    "If a kid wanted to read in detention, they would absolutely have two hours a day to accomplish that," Goff said, and sometimes more. He said detention center staffs urge youths to better their lives. If anyone "shows a propensity to read, I feel certain that there is an adult nearby who's going to encourage that."

    Although books are barred from the individual cells where youths stay, Goff said the kids don't spend a lot of time in those cells. He said most youths stay in their cells for about an hour each day during the staff's shift changes; overnight during bedtime; and during occasional "lockdowns," when officers search for contraband or deal with other security issues.

    A detention center schedule he provided shows youths spending about 10 to 12 hours a day in their cells, counting both sleeping time and shift changes. Goff said the cells are designed primarily for resting, but some choose to spend their time doing push-ups or other exercises. There are no televisions or radios in cells.

    "We want them to go in there and lay down," Goff said.

    Goff said he has seen juveniles use books in a number of nefarious ways, including:

    Putting a paperback in a sock to create a club. "If you put it in a sock and swing it around, it's not something most people would choose to be hit with."

    Using pages as rolling papers to make makeshift cigarettes.

    Jamming locks or clogging toilets with the pages.

    Weaving together the pages and moistening them to fashion ropes. "I've seen ropes up to 6 feet long" used in suicide attempts, Goff said.

    Goff said he's not aware of a written policy banning the books in cells, but it is the general practice in the five detention centers he oversees, which include two in Hillsborough County and one in Pinellas.

    Catherine Arnold, spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said as a general rule, books also are not allowed in cells in the state's other detention centers.

    She said books in cells can be classified as "Level II Contraband." The department's detention manual defines these as items that "could inflict serious injury on an individual, or could aid a youth in an attempted escape."

    Examples of Level II Contraband listed in the manual include: scissors, knives, metal forks and spoons, razors, blades, tools, metal knitting needles or crochet hooks, hacksaw blades, rope, ID cards, wire cutters, paper clips, and staples.

    But at the adult jails in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, inmates are allowed to have books in cells. That's true even for inmates who are under 18, and who are housed in jail because they have been charged with crimes in the adult court system.

    "It simply keeps them busy while they're in jail," said Hillsborough Maj. Robert Lucas.

    Although "virtually anything of any material can be worked into some form of a weapon or another," books haven't proved to be a major problem, he said. Besides, "there is that hope that one, through their reading, would improve their reading skills and enrich their lives," Lucas said.

    Pinellas Cpl. Mark Ginan pointed out that jails and detention centers do have some differences. In jails, even the juvenile inmates spend much more time in their cells. But he also said, "we've just never had a problem with the books and magazines" in the Pinellas County Jail, where inmates can have three magazines and three books at a time.

    Cathy Corry, a Clearwater accountant, said her son read two novels while he was held in a Kansas detention center recently. She thinks reading in cells should be allowed here, too. "It's an ideal time to encourage this type of wholesome, healthy activity."

    Levine said he understands the need for maintaining security in detention centers, but adds, "at first blush I would of course assume that if a young person wants a book in the confined area of their sleeping cells, we should be smiling."

    -- Curtis Krueger, who writes about social issues, can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or by calling (727) 893-8232.

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