Within almost arm’s reach of my cellblock 5G post sat Tiny Timmy Tyler. There too at the circular Visitation table was his mother. I overheard, “You must like being in that room if you keep actin’ up.” The woman could see the cell row and see into her son’s seven-foot wide by fifteen-foot deep ‘room’ through the graffiti-etched Plexiglas window spanning its door. Like every other inmate at Chicago’s 500-cell Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, eleven-year-old Timmy had limited privacy when using the steel toilet mounted to his cell’s brick front wall. Gawked at or not, very few kids I met enjoyed cell-time, seemingly only those mentally ill, for sure not busy Timmy, his mother’s sarcasm notwithstanding. Hardly a pleasant chamber indeed was Timmy’s cell because the facility’s pervading mediciney odor trailed there as well. My nostrils grew immune to the odd, dizzying smell after a week on the job. Arrested a month earlier, Timmy probably couldn’t detect the tang in the air either—he had worse to stress over. I’d soon notice him angling his mattress against the gap under his cell door to stop roaches and gray mice from scurrying in while he slept.
I was a Children’s Attendant yet assumed the duties of a jail guard and correctional officer. Unarmed, I wore no uniform or badge. “All you have is your mouth,” one attendant warned. Rare was Timmy’s size and youth. I spotted only two smaller inmates. Most were thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-, or sixteen-years-old, and seventy or eighty pounds heavier than Timmy. Some awaited trial on carjacking and first-degree murder charges, so only three weeks out of initial Children’s Attendant training, being assigned a shift on Timmy’s cellblock, 5G, was a relief. The younger the inmates, the more savable I envisioned them and the safer I envisioned myself. From the Console—5G’s metal and fiberglass guard desk screwed to the floor in the block’s middle—I faced an eighteen-cell row. Between the cells and me, camped Timmy, Ms. Tyler, and other boys with relatives at plastic tables and chairs representing each primary color. Aside from these tables, seats, and the TV Area seats arranged at 5G’s far left end, beige and Mississippi-mud brown hued the entire block. To me the bright Visitation furniture, which doubled for card and chess tables during regular hours, equaled Cook County’s apology for the otherwise drab cellblock color scheme. Hair shorn to his scalp, Timmy slouched in dark khakis and a white T-shirt, staring beyond his mother out 5G’s front bay window. Clear days granted kingly views of the Sears Tower—possibly Timmy’s closest gazes ever. Hearsay had many of Chicago’s youngest poor never touching sneakers to downtown streets or pointing pupils out over Lake Michigan’s turquoise waters. Wearing glasses, Ms. Tyler struck me as in her mid-thirties. Unlike her son, she was reserved, reserved in a way that if ignoring their identical wide brown eyes and plump noses, I’d have never hung their fruit pieces on the same family tree.
To begin Visitation, Ms. Tyler had waited for my coworker, Attendant Bradley, a married man, not very stout or tall, even with his black flattop hair, to unlock Timothy’s cell. Timmy hadn’t been lounging in the TV Area with the rest of 5G. Timothy was in “Confinement.” Earlier that day, he committed a major infraction. Excluding Visitation, a five-minute shower, and an hour for exercise, Timmy spent that day in his cell. “Policy And Procedure,” as we termed our responsibilities, did obligate a Caseworker, Supervisor, Floor Manager, or Dr. Jacobs, the jail’s lone full-time mental health professional, to look into Timmy’s cell “at a minimum, once a day.” Confined juveniles lost most personal possessions upon offense. Timmy’s cell had yielded several pair of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles underwear and some baseball and basketball cards scattered on the floor—gifts from his mother during a previous visit. At Timmy’s age, growing up two parent-style in a Dallas suburb, my sports cards arrived under the Christmas tree or with a birthday cake and I filed them numerically in long cardboard boxes. My dad answered my questions about player histories and stat columns on the card backs when I wondered why our beloved Texas Rangers never fielded themselves against the teams from Bluefield, Elmira, and Waterloo. When Timmy flipped his cards over, E.R.A. and R.B.I. and the Cape Cod League probably stumped him—his father was nowhere.
In Confinement, juveniles sat, stood, lay down, crouched, or paced. Restricted spaces with nothing to grab and twist or push and pull created hell for a kid like Timmy. To head off misbehavior, one Children’s Attendant warned even the facility’s oldest inmates: “Gentlemen, it’s fucked up to be locked up. But it’s really fucked up to be locked up while you’re locked up.” No matter how fucked up all this was, Timmy often stewed cell-sequestered in Confinement for serious misdeeds like refusing to stand silently during Wall-Time, slapping another inmate, and shrieking obscenities at the nurses when ordered to swallow his daily Ritalin and Prozac. Timmy’s cellblock housed the shorties—the youngest boys in the building, aged ten and eleven for whom judges used lockup as last resort, appropriating them first to foster-care “Placement” agencies. But being small didn’t mean that Timmy and his peers were booked on less grave offenses. “They do the same things the bigger boys do,” a twenty-year attendant in his second career, “Old Man Johnson,” wagged his head telling me. Block 5G had incarcerated the younger preteen convicted of dropping five-year-old Eric Morse fourteen floors from a public housing tenement window to his internationally headlined death in 1994 because the boy and his older brother refused to assist them stealing candy.
Scanning other inmates and visitors, my eyes stopped again on Ms. Tyler. Her sarcasm about Timmy liking Confinement seemed inhuman. But how, I wondered, shoulda mother treat her jailed son? Chew his ass out? Gush pity because he now requested a stranger’s permission to urinate? Impugn the officers who discriminated which kids to nab sprinting from the crime site? Curse his father who never taught him to pedal a bike or catch a Frisbee? Blame his under-trained, under-resourced schoolteacher who couldn’t render her classroom fun enough to fascinate Timmy more with geographic nations than gangster nations? Still, Sunday Visitation on 5G was a dish of strawberries. Half a dozen moms, one potential dad, several grandmothers, and various female guardians had seated themselves at the tables where I directed them and their respective child emerging from around the glass wall partitioning off the TV Area. Stationed on its back row, Attendant Bradley enforced our No Talking rule—more taxing than signing-in visitors. I should have savored those grand easy-money moments. I didn’t. While I controlled whether a juvenile and his grandma conversed at the candy apple red table or the canary yellow table, and while I determined at what hour I would present him the toothpaste and fresh-washed socks from her care package, I couldn’t compel this one boy and this one mother to do anything more that languish there, wordlessly, gaping through each other. I wanted Timmy to spill his guts about whatever he’d done to land in Confinement. I wanted Timmy to bawl and pledge to be a good kid—a good kid not in Confinement during her next visit. I wanted to hear Timmy promise to be an even better kid whenever his judge released him so that his mother never again would spend her Sunday afternoon in a jail.
After thirty minutes, Timmy and Ms. Tyler stood without cue from their table. Attendant Bradley exited his TV Area seat into the tables area and gestured Timmy back to his cell.
His mother stepped to the Console. “So why is Timmy being kept in his room?” Her tone was level. No sign of anger at me or Cook County.
“Actually, I just started at two, so I wasn’t here when he went in Confinement. But the carbon copy of the report should be in his room if you want to look at it. We could have him find it if you want.” I, too, was brainwashed, avoiding ‘cell’ like Timmy wasn’t imprisoned. Four years earlier while a senior at a private college within walking distance of the city’s Magnificent Mile, I’d volunteered as a counselor at this jail. In special rooms down the hall, my small group of inmate participants acted mannerly. Some recorded home addresses for me so we could communicate after their release. I found fanciful their associations with significant crime—the enduring naiveté soon intriguing me into becoming a Children’s Attendant.
Ms. Tyler turned from me to Attendant Bradley bolting Timmy inside his cell. Visitation minutes remained to discuss the report with him. The glimpse at her son lingered a few seconds. Then she swung her calm head around and exited the cellblock through the door behind me.
A few weeks after meeting Timmy and his mother, I drew a Medical Movement shift. Three months as a Children’s Attendant and I was still a “floater” with no permanent cellblock. I made 5G my first stop, leaned my head in the doorway, and called for Timmy—the only shorty on my list of inmates due for medication in the next thirty minutes. I let him into the vacant hallway and we headed for the next cellblock. My curiosity about Tiny Timmy mirrored my curiosity about juveniles of every size and age. Did their charges match their jailhouse demeanors? Certain kids yes-sired and no-sired me, and then I’d hear they had killed two or three people. One hissed “White Bitch!” when I instructed him to serve Wall-Time for talking in line without permission, yet police had merely snagged him with a few ziplocks of marijuana. I resented administration for not educating me about the inmates. Supervisors knew more. Caseworkers knew more. Nurses knew more. The less I knew about the juveniles, the harder it was to help them conform. Ignorance was no bliss on this job. Ducking into the empty exam room and flipping through a medication notebook had informed me what pills Timmy would swallow when we arrived at Medical. I had yet to witness Timmy doing anything really degenerate and his mother blessing him with the visit heartened me. Another night he’d returned my wave as I passed 5G in the hallway. He may still have a normal life, I thought.
“So what are you in for?”
Timmy fixed his big eyes straight ahead, “A gun case and gang-banging.”
In Chicago gangbanging meant sporting your colors, flashing hand signs, and marauding with those who carried on likewise. All this engendered muggings, beatings, the running of drugs, and the shooting of guns from moving cars. I’d assumed that thieving a GameBoy or heaving a shaft of rebar at his school’s windows on a Saturday deposited Timmy in jail, not a firearm indictment, so his claim depressed me. Two-second glances at many older inmates—their scars, their Asian letter neck tattoos that I doubted could be named or respective countries located, their habitual scowling, their unkempt hair—conjured up for me myriad criminal scenes and deeds. In my head though Timmy never lugged a weapon using bullets. I thought of burly Caseworker Hampton, a bit of aggressive Afro of his own, one of few caseworkers whom attendants didn’t peg an administrative lapdog. He might indulge my interest in Timmy. After a shift, we converged outside the building. His answer, “Aggravated assault, so he could have used a gun.” Regular everyday assault must be a barehanded attack, I reasoned and hoped that Timmy was fabricating the gun part to sound tough when in reality he’d self-defensively brandished something less lethal, like a rock or a bat—my ploy to believe that Timmy would eventually, like I had, grow excited about his history project, query his English teacher why e. e. cummings never used capital letters, and tingle with nervousness before football team tryouts. To staunch my ebbing pessimism about Timmy, I didn’t quiz him about the assault. Were even the shorties lost causes and I bailed on them, I’d humbly have to explain to family and friends that being a Children’s Attendant in Chicago wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life after all. I’d secretly posited myself different from most in my social realm—peers who pursued well-paying and self-centered careers within our own comfy, cloistered demographic. Quitting the jail and quitting on its troubled kids would leave me no more a Mother Teresa than my friends and peers.
Personal safety concerns aside, I did like 5G because of the regular 4:00 P.M.-midnight Children’s Attendant, a man at least five years older than me and no rookie. Shorter than me but just as muscled, Attendant Milton’s spot-on management of 5G created leisure for us to chat about his part-time real estate business and marvel at how many millions of dollars Latrell Sprewell had recently flushed when he seized his Golden State Warriors’ basketball coach by the throat. Milton converted that tabloid into a teachable moment for the shorties watching us play ping-pong. Ponder your action’s consequences—Don’t Be Like Latrell. Working 2:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. on 5G with Attendant Milton was effortless. Between Halloween and Thanksgiving I landed on 5G again—proud. I’d piloted a hushed evening here in September with a fellow “newjack” when Attendant Milton phoned in sick. My confidence also bubbled higher because two weeks earlier downstairs on cellblock 3E, a fourteen-year-old had fired a haymaker over the TV Area’s back chair row. I rocketed off my seat and with both hands yanked him by his non-punching arm from the gaggle and pinned him into the brick wall behind us. The boy he’d swung at could have rushed in for a sucker blow but didn’t. My first punching fight lasted one punch. Timmy was gone from 5G too—moved to another block, so I really relaxed. Despite my hopeful intrigue with him, Timmy’s potential for defiance always complicated a shift.
Attendant Milton was taking off again, but female Attendant Avalon showing up, fortyish, portly, and on the job only a few months longer than me, didn’t worry me. She hardly smiled, was an inch taller than Milton’s previous substitute, a male, and weighed more. Women could staff male cellblocks provided the other attendant was male. Few did. She and I executed dinner peacefully, but afterwards two shorties popped up in the TV Area during an episode of “Martin.” They flinched, arms cocked and fists squeezed. Nothing like this had happened six weeks earlier with the fellow rookie male attendant, but many inmates (these two included) were new—I hadn’t proved myself to them yet. “Hey sit down!” I barked. Zero compliance. Attendant Avalon and I sprung off our seats and collided with empty and occupied chairs to grasp at the boys. Hard plastic-coated fiberglass clattered. Round-faced Jimmy knocked my forearm from his torso and swung at the other kid, his head, too, barely higher than the bend in my elbows. When Attendant Avalon lurched around me, seized Jimmy by one arm, and pulled him toward her side, it felt like we were participating in some bad dream of a potato sack race. She planned to restrain him with our official method to incapacitate a violent juvenile—the Crisis Prevention Institute hold, our final resort if verbal strategies failed.
Jimmy twisted, flailed, and clawed back at us and we never could wedge him between our waists to fold him in half and shift his center of gravity, so we held Jimmy any way we could. We should have dragged his pudgy ass to cell eighteen—5G’s darker, dingier usual Confinement cell, but we didn’t. Jimmy was my first restraint, the only inmate I’d touched for more than a few seconds. I wanted the exchange over. We aimed for his original cell, number five, directly behind us. Jimmy thrashed. He croaked “No!” without moving his lips far apart. The enunciation disturbed me, as if I was abusing him. I let Jimmy go and opened his cell door while Attendant Avalon still clutched him at the armpits, his back against her front.
Then I remembered his feet. “His shoes gotta come off!” Sneakers could kick out Plexiglas. Squatting, I wrenched off both sneakers without untying the laces while Jimmy’s body coiled like barber pole stripes in Avalon’s grip. His socked feet flapped at us and she lumbered into the cell and shoved Jimmy away from her.
Once his feet reached the floor, he gripped a bottle of shampoo on his desk, heel-pivoted, and hurled. The bottle glanced off Attendant Avalon’s forehead and whacked the door window behind her. “Ohh! Did you see that!” a kid in the TV Area in back of us shrieked. A different shorty doubted my masculinity: “He shouldn’t be makin’ a lady do that!”
Attendant Avalon ducked around the Plexiglas. Jimmy slung his soap bar and hairbrush at the window as I heaved the door closed and locked it. Jimmy bull rushed the Plexiglas, tears bleeding down his cheeks. Avalon and I rotated around. Shorties flew about, free of their chairs and jabbering. “Okay, sit down, sit down! And don’t talk! There’s nothin’ to see!” I was lying. Compared to this, “Martin” paled in entertainment value. Jimmy’s combatant had wandered back to his seat. Grading on a curve, we didn’t Confine him. He’d resisted less.
Attendant Avalon and I sank into our chairs, mine inches to the right of Jimmy’s door. My heart thumped from the physical engagement, but more from crushed idealism. Working cellblocks was a universe away from being a weekly volunteer counselor. Back then I was looking at the ocean through a drinking straw.
Jimmy slapped the window more and pounded it with the sides of his fists.
“Turn around!” I jutted my face at the shorties’ voyeuristic head swings.
With fists and socked feet, Jimmy attacked his Plexiglas and yelled for twenty straight minutes. My eardrums pulsed. My arms fidgeted like they wanted to disconnect themselves from my body unitl I remembered wisdom from classroom training: the more eyes watching an inmate act out, the more self-gratifying his acting out becomes.
“Okay, you have Rec,” I said. Most of the boys shot off their chairs over the thin floor tiles and zipped through the space between the cell row and glass-partition into the Common Area. I followed to monitor card-playing and ping-pong. Attendant Avalon stayed in the TV Area to enforce No Talking. Jimmy remained in his cell door window while I played ping-pong with one shorty and monitored others at the tables. Jimmy shouted and pounded more. I ignored him—all the consequenceI came up with. Training did me no good with Jimmy. Attendant Avalon did nothing either.
Attendants from neighboring cellblocks navigated the adjacent hallway with their two-dozen khakied and white T-shirted juveniles (no shorties), some with facial hair, marching in quiet lines. They leered at me as I swiped my paddle. They heard Jimmy’s beating and screaming and observed that I couldn’t do shit to stop him. My manhood deserved doubting.
Half an hour into Jimmy’s fury against his Plexiglas, Attendant Peña, thinly mustached and from 5F, shorter and slimmer than me, tapped our door. I let him in. His gelled hair shined in my eyes. “Can I see your keys?” I handed him the ring and wandered to the Console. Humiliated by the intervention, I couldn’t idle nearby and watch like a dunce. From the Console, I heard Attendant Peña’s boot heels patter the slick floor passing the card tables. He moonlighted as a security guard at a southwest side city mall where shoplifters may have outnumbered shoppers.
Jimmy saw him and fled to the rear of his cell.
Peña rammed the master key into the door and jerked. “What the fuck is your problem!” boomed off Jimmy’s back wall and toward the Console.
His question was as much for me as for Jimmy.
Peña blew into the cell. He ranted more, cursed more, backed out, departed, and I didn’t look him in the face when he returned me the key ring.
I resumed ping-pong in peace because the Come To Jesus meeting permanently chased Jimmy from his window. He repented of his sin and lived righteously (and quietly) for the shift’s remainder, but an already Confined juvenile, Vernon, soon filled Jimmy’s void. Unlike Jimmy, Vernon was a spasm of movement and chatter. He’d been asleep until Jimmy’s banging and Peña’s yelling. At first Vernon’s raps on the door sounded like snare drum beats. Loathing a composure abandonment more than listening to Vernon’s cacophony, I refused to blast into his cell and shout bloody murder even when the taps rolled into pounds. Within the hour Vernon’s feet and vocal cords tired and he quit. But then he stuffed his bed sheets into his toilet. The flushes came and came until the commode overflowed under his cell door and water oozed toward me at the ping-pong table. Attendant Avalon and I did nothing. We knew nothing to do. To traverse the cellblock, we cat-walked around the toilet water slick. Every time we did, Vernon’s squinty eyes smirked victory through his Plexiglas.
Near 10:00 P.M. a supervisor arrived. Vernon must have heard him enter the block and was curious because he reappeared in his window. In dark leather, Supervisor Lankford resembled a squat, black Hell’s Angel. We’d earlier called for him to discipline Vernon but he never showed. Lankford strolled to the corner of 5G for our broom. Opening Vernon’s door, he began sweeping the toilet puddle into his cell. Vernon recoiled to lean against the rear wall. Broom straws swished through water against the smooth floor. The chain on Lankford’s wallet jingled. Supervisor Lankford’s head twitched over his shoulder at me: You’re fucking worthless. If only I could sweep you away too.
Then he turned and looked back into Vernon’s cell. “Sleep good!” He locked the door.
I went home and didn’t sleep well. I couldn’t restrain a shorty or even shut one up inside his cell. And a lady took a shampoo bottle to the head because of it. At least Timmy hadn’t been there to contribute, to potentially slash away any more of my manhood. I nearly quit over Jimmy and Vernon, but the imagined shame of a four-month entry on my employment résumé trumped the shame of 5G, 5G without Tiny Timmy, “going up” on me.
A day before the 5G meltdown, I’d found Timmy behind Plexiglas on Medical. “How come you’re down here now?”
“For something B did.” By “B,” Timmy meant Attendant Bradley.
Timmy shoved the carbon copy of our standard yellow rule violation report under his door. In Attendant Bradley’s account, Timmy had defied orders the night before and ignored a directive to enter his cell.
“Is this what happened?” I bent down and slipped the paper back into his cell.
“No,” Timmy mumbled, flaring his eyes away from mine.
“So you didn’t do that?” I hoped to brainstorm how not to repeat such a mistake. Maybe Timmy would be more transparent with me than with his mother. He admitted nothing.
A Close Watch Notice taped to the brick wall next to his cell mandated that two staff be present when opening Timmy’s door. Dr. Jacobs walked up in his white dress shirt and solid tie, so I asked about Timmy’s special requirements. The justification—Timmy had also accused Attendant Bradley of molesting him, informing a caseworker that he recently awoke with blood on his underwear. According to Timmy, Attendant Bradley opened his cell and assaulted him after he fell asleep, having mouthed sexual suggestions at 8:30 P.M. Lights-Out. The caseworker, a Mandated Reporter of possible inmate mistreatment under the Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, initiated an investigation. Dr. Jacobs then moved Timmy to Medical. Now if two of us breathed into Timmy’s cell whenever its door was open, he couldn’t level further accusations without each Children’s Attendant possessing an alibi. Timmy’s quarantine separated him from Attendant Bradley until Department of Children and Family Services inquisitors determined if his account had merit.
Dr. Jacobs was not alone in utilizing Medical for non-medicinal purposes. Judges designated certain inmates for Court-Order Isolation in Medical because they were diagnosed mentally ill, charged with molesting another child, exhibited homosexual tendencies, or sported enough infamy for administrators to fear other juveniles planting a hit on them if housed with the general population. Timmy’s living conditions were now similar. Only two attendants managed Medical. Rarely could both post themselves at the same location, like the TV Room (two adjoining cells with their mutual wall demolished), to provide each other alibi. And as a Close Watch, Timmy wasn’t to be locked in there alone—he might hurt himself while unsupervised.
I informed Timmy of the decree after he asked me to walk him to the TV Room for cartoons. His response, “That’s some bullshit man!” Later in my shift, a kid in an adjacent cell ridiculed Timothy’s rape tale through their shared wall. Salacious news spread fast even on Medical where juveniles shared little face-to-face interaction. Grilled as to how he slumbered through a sexual assault, Timmy insisted, “I’m a heavy sleeper.” Dr. Jacobs believed that Timmy had conspired to be transferred off 5G. The boy hated Attendant Bradley who later confided to me that he had stripped Timmy to his underwear whenever he shouted and kicked his cell door. Few such almost naked kids, Timmy included, continued to scream and thrash. When pacified, they received their clothes. If never calm, they might end up, I’d heard, naked with icy water splashed on them. These tactics never occurred to me with Jimmy and Vernon.
“Timmy, you need to stop with that door!” I snapped three days later.
It was Sunday. He remained on Medical as did I. Fresh off 5G diminishing my manhood, being assigned to the building’s easiest cellblock again was further relief and rendered me the most pathetic male possible, deriving pleasured solace in hiding from the shorties in mass.
Timmy was cramming chunks of mattress sponge into the crevice between his cell door and doorframe. If he persisted, there would be consequences, I promised. Attendant Whitman, one of the Medical Movement attendants, had wandered up next to me. He was on break. “I don’t care! I’m goin’ home on the eighteenth!” Timmy jeered into the window at us, ripping more green pieces from his foam mattress.
If he packed the space tight enough, I’d struggle to unlock the cell at dinnertime and in case of emergency. Timmy’s face broadcast his pride at filling the gap with debris to agitate me. Until then, Timmy had aimed no trouble my way. I’d only listened to stories and read about his trouble. Timmy had done a marvelous job of dirtying his blue trousers and white socks shuffling about the cell on his hands and knees. Even his white t-shirt was soiled. Visitation began in half an hour but five inches of snow had settled, leaving Chicago quietly white and cold. Hoping someone would visit Timmy and assuage my responsibility to checkmate him into tolerable behavior, I wondered how many parents, grandparents, and legal guardians would brave the bluster. I repeated my order for Timmy to lay off the mattress and door.
Promptly, he tore off more chunks and flung them around his cell. “The judge said I’m goin’ home on the eighteenth, released to my dad!” Translation: I’ll be gone in forty-eight hours and can handle whatever discipline you dish out in the meantime.
“You’re gonna lose all your shit if you don’t stop!” Attendant Whitman threatened, his chin pointed down at Timothy on the floor. The man outweighed me by at least twenty pounds and was taller. His dealing with Timmy seemed a wasteful mismatch. There wasn’t much else to induce Timmy to quit—the boy had lost his television privileges even when both attendants could supervise him in the TV Room. Facility rules prohibited us from spanking or denying him food, even an orange or a butter pecan cookie for dessert. I did meet one attendant who said he “Jenny Craiged” inmates in Confinement.
“You can’t take it!”
I put the key in the door, turned, and pulled for five or ten seconds. Jammed, but Attendant Whitman with a longer turn wrested it open. Mattress scraps fluttered to the marble-hard floor. After the humiliation with Jimmy and Vernon, taking the lead here was my chance at partial redemption. Timmy’s grin whipped into a grimace when I bent down, grabbed his fuzzy blanket and mattress hull, and yanked them out from underneath him. His legs unfolded onto the bare floor. I’d bested a defiant shorty, albeit one not pounding his door and screaming. Attendant Whitman nodded at me and left for his next medication run. I piled Timmy’s linens in the hallway. Timmy scooted to the back of the barren cell. Slumped onto his knees, he eyed me while I cleaned out the mattress remnants along with debris leftover from lunch—empty milk cartons and two Sara Lee brownie wrappers. Someone must have bribed Timmy with an extra brownie to go easy on the mattress and door. Perturbed as I was, a boy crawling in squalor upset me. We owed him a sanitary living arrangement. Sadly, a heated cell, khaki pants, a bird-shirt, food, and a shower with generic soap made the sum-total of our offer.
In Timothy’s initial interview with Dr. Jacobs, long before accusing Attendant Bradley, he spoke of suicide, prompting the stubble-faced man to label him a Close Watch. Timmy thus had no bed frame on which to set his sheet-less mattress. The bulky bed frames could be flipped on their sides, sat or stood upon, and fallen off when kids climbed them to peer out their six-foot high rear cell windows into free society. We had reason to order them down and remove bed frames. Juveniles housed on the jail’s east perimeter could view the parking garage across Hamilton Avenue and note our vehicles. Some threatened to blow up our cars or have hit men wait for us. “Yeah, you drive that little green car,” a kid quipped one day. My Toyota Tercel was teal, but his scouting me out further motivated my usual work commute—the Metra train.
Only playing cards remained in Timmy’s cell. His sports cards were left on 5G. I’d seen Timmy playing solitaire on the floor here on Medical. I let him keep the aces and spades.
Timmy noticed me leaving. “When do I get it back?” He lurched up onto his feet toward the door.
“When you can act right!” I turned and legged down the hallway to store the broom and dustpan. There, Timmy. Who says I can’t take something from you? Hollow gratification though. My altruistic mission in relocating three states north after graduate school in my native Texas now amounted to matching wits with an eleven-year-old over chunks of mattress-sponge.
Our first visitors arrived and Timmy went vocal. The man and woman spotted him hunkering on his cell floor glaring through the door window. They heard the bullshits and motherfuckers. “On his way to prison,” the man said, signing our Visitors’ Log on the counter near Timmy’s cell. Then the couple trekked down the row toward their son. Medical Visitation was different. With no Common Area, we arranged chairs in the cell doorways.
“You see that lady that just walked by?” Timmy wagged his head side-to-side, as if through the brick walls he recognized boys in other cells.
From the counter I noticed the couples’ heads tic sideways at the sneer, but Timmy’s profane shouts subsided the longer he seethed in the stripped cell. No one visited him. Had she turned out, I wondered what Ms. Tyler would have done with Timothy in more trouble now than two months earlier on 5G. I was curious about his father too, curious if he knew that his son missed school while in Confinement for verbally assailing nurses or for not going to bed willingly. Timmy slouched against a sidewall and stared out his cell door window, eyes shifting to track everyone. Timmy wasn’t any closer to being Wally or the Beav. I hadn’t eased a starfish back into the sea, but I would cash my next paycheck in better conscience, remembering Jimmy and Vernon’s cell door-pounding and toilet-flooding. I’d thwarted Timmy from something similar. A tad of my manly self-respect had returned.
About 9:00 P.M. I located a mattress more intact than the one Timmy had been stuffing into his doorjamb and set it outside his cell. He deserved it—like Sea World workers tossing a sardine to the dolphin every time it soared through rings. I’d reinforce the desired behavior as I learned to in training. Timmy provided me what I desired, so I’d grant his desire—treating a person like Pavlov’s Dog. I dropped the new mattress in front of his cell. Timmy stood, his eyebrows arching up into his forehead, but within minutes a thick woman nearly my height and at least forty years old, Supervisor Wilkins, walked into Medical.
“No, he doesn’t get a new one, he can have his old one back.” Timmy had torn the vinyl cover off his first mattress, the shiny leather-skirted woman explained.
I still thought he deserved a different one in exchange for his four hours void of yelling and whacking Plexiglas, but she was boss. I said nothing and stepped aside.
Supervisor Wilkins opened Timmy’s cell and with a moderately heeled shoe pushed his original mattress inside. She threw in his blanket and bolted the door.
“Man that’s bullshit!” Timmy slammed the cell door with the soles of his socked feet—not our desired behavior.
Wilkins reopened his door. Her skirt tightened at the knees when she crouched and jerked the old bedding away. She stood and relocked the cell.
More kicks. More expletives.
She watched Timmy for a moment, then exited Medical and returned with two sets of shackles—handcuffs linked by ten-inch chains. Only administrators and supervisors could approve Mechanical Restraints, which were not to be “placed excessively tight,” nor applied in such a position to “cause cruel or unusual punishment.”
Chains in hand, Supervisor Wilkins opened Timmy’s cell and dragged in his mattress and blanket. Because Medical often housed two or three female juveniles, one attendant had to be a woman. Wilkins must have known about my failure on 5G because she motioned Medical’s female attendant whose hips spanned mine twofold to help pin Timmy on the shredded mat. Two big-boned women subduing an undersized fifth-grader seemed extreme. Even in pity, I conjured up zero options. Timmy was thrice-incarcerated. Once inside the detention center. Then inside a cell. And finally shackled inside that cell. Life was really ‘really fucked up’ for Timmy now.
“Bitches, Motherfucker!” Timmy wriggled his restricted arms and legs.
A kid this young articulating this crudely was extreme too, but the five-story 600,000 square foot steel, brick, and glass jail exacted the worst from many, and not only from juveniles. One attendant confessed to me that he once “talked like a church boy,” and then flashed his photo identification badge. “Look at me now. Don’t I look a lot more than nine years younger there? I never cursed before coming here.” Another in his mid-fifties explained, “My favorite word is motherfucker. That’s when the boys know I’m serious.”
The women backed out of Timmy’s cell. He sat behind the door window. I lingered nearby. Timmy had quit swearing. He tried to stand, but chains linking his wrists tangled with those linking his ankles, thus binding his feet to his upper torso—an inadvertent hog-tie. Stuck in his squat, Timmy contorted every limb as if miming a protest. The chains clinked and his hands and arms swam around in front of his chest and face before they fell to his lap and he mashed his wrinkled forehead against the cell door window. Scowling, his eyes flitted about like a couple of flashlights beaming on nothing definite. A colored playing card, which had slipped underneath his door, snagged Timmy’s interest just as the juvenile relegated to that night’s cleaning duty finished a push broom lap from the opposite end of the thirty-cell corridor.
The boy swabbing the hall whisked the card into a pile of trash and lint against the wall.
“Gimme my red card!”
The sweeper halted and glanced to Attendant Jarvis, another Medical Movement attendant who sat at the counter a few steps from Timmy’s cell. I was standing next to him. Jarvis, six-foot three-inches tall and once a soldier stationed in Germany, frowned. Timmy rocked back on his haunches and banged the door with short, horizontal stomps of his socked feet. More four-letter words spewed from his creviced face. Supervisor Wilkins was still on block. She strode closer. “You wanna be shackled to that toilet?”
Timmy rattled the Plexiglas window harder and louder.
Chaining a kid to a commode not only would jeopardize her employment but also subject Supervisor Wilkins to criminal charges. She was feigning, anything to coax the boy to quit, all the while probably fantasizing about doing something sadistic to him—my sentiment earlier when Timmy had smiled and kept jacking with his doorjamb.
Wilkins opened the cell and instead of assaulting legality, instructed Attendant Jarvis to pick the boy up, “Let’s go.” Perhaps in her mind, I was still too green for this task. Jarvis followed, his arms cradling silent Timmy like an infant.
“Make sure you finish up,” I said to the sweeping kid, trying to feel useful.
Next door on block 3B, they freed Timothy from his mechanical restraints for a cell with a metal door and window five and a half feet off the floor and hardly as wide as two legal-sized envelopes. With no bed frame to invert and scale, Timmy couldn’t see out the cell’s front or back. Unusually hostile juveniles landed here. Everyone called it putting them “behind the steel.”
An hour later, Supervisor Wilkins led an unfettered Timmy back to Medical. I’d expected him to overnight on 3B. A few kicks against the steel barricade had ended his tantrum. Wilkins handed him a pen and Attendant Jarvis’s rule violation form, which, tightlipped, Timmy autographed. I doubted Mom would read that one either. Timmy grasped its carbon copy from Wilkins and moved into his cell. Report in hand, he crouched onto his ragged mattress, glaring through the window up and down the clean hallway. The red-backed face card was long gone.
The next week I stopped by Medical. Two cells down from where I’d last seen him, Timmy rested on folded legs. Recalling his prediction about being released to his father, I asked what had happened. “My dad didn’t come to court, so now I go to Placement,” he chirped. Outwardly, the idea of living in a group home didn’t disturb Timmy a bit. Even if new mattresses were more leniently dispensed at Placement, his indifference, real or unreal, to leaving us and not going home, did disturb me.
Attendant Bradley expected a sluggish response from DCFS inquisitors regarding Timmy’s rape accusation. The Illinois child abuse hotline averaged over a thousand daily calls. “They’ll take a kid’s word over yours,” I was warned about DCFS. To Attendant Bradley’s surprise, this government agency, whose decrees resulted in suspensions and firings, needed fewer than ten days to rule Timothy’s claim unfounded. Inmates accusing us of mistreatment, despite a DCFS Not-Guilty verdict, did not return to our cellblocks. Dr. Jacobs and the caseworkers could thus restrict Timmy to Medical or transfer him to 3J—the cellblock with inmates closest to Timmy’s age and size after 5G. Dr. Jacobs suspected that Timmy was angling for a move to 3J because “some of his gang buddies” were housed there, hence his assertions against Attendant Bradley. “Instead of him responding to the system, Timothy loves seeing the system respond to him.” Dr. Jacobs held Timmy in Medical for three additional weeks, but shortly after his twelfth birthday, Timothy had what he wanted.
“Where’s Timothy Tyler?” I wondered aloud, reporting to Medical one afternoon in early December. I expected the boy’s bug eyes peering at me through cell door number two.
“On 3J andalreadyin Confinement,” fifty-year-old Attendant Parker, a regular Medical Movement attendant, said. Last night he’d escorted Timmy from a locked 3J cell to Medical for his dosage. Parker reported that Timmy’s resumed cell door kicking had dislodged his first 3J window from its steel frame, and staff moved him to a different cell to no effect. Supervisors and caseworkers then shackled Timmy more, but he thrust his arms into the air, taunting whoever threatened to cuff him, having discovered how to wriggle his slender wrists out of the fetters. With Timmy as Houdini, supervisors reverted to steel-doored cells. Legally, this was our biggest swinging stick—subtracting privileges and increasing his time caged inside various cells. Aside from later bedtimes or quarters closer to the TV Area, we wielded little to motivate change in Timmy. I never saw him nor any other inmate scheduled for regular therapy or counseling.
Days later a meek tapping sounded from behind Timmy’s 3B steel door. The noise surprised Attendant Simons, a native Chicagoan about my age, who informed me that Timmy normally yelled for attention. I’d asked him about the boy. Whichever cellblock I worked, I forever wondered about Tiny Timmy, as if his fate inside the jail would mirror mine. If behaving was possible for him, then so too was it for me—I could be a Children’s Attendant who never cursed or stripped inmates or threw water into their cells. The window in the steel door was just low enough for Timmy to knuckle-rap. Simons, regular 3B attendant, opened the cell. Timmy panted and vomit coated his chin and shirt, so Attendant Simons walked the faint boy to Medical. Nurses let Timmy suck air from a ventilator and then he returned behind his metallic 3B door. “It’s probably the only time I ever actually felt sorry for the kid,” Simons admitted.
The violent nature of Timmy’s offense, particularly for a then eleven-year-old, and his misbehavior under our care induced more court hearings, motions, continuances, and requests. At Timmy’s next court appearance, a judge continued his case and Timmy spent the winter holidays with us. Still yet after five months of detention, half of it being locked up while he was locked up (Confinement), and Attendant Jarvis calling him “a bad little motherfucker,” Timmy again contended that freedom neared. Two months since his father didn’t show ‘on the eighteenth,’ Timmy’s story involved his mother’s custody, instead of Placement.
Into January I passed 3J. A plywood sheet stood in for one of its front windowpanes. Days earlier, Timmy had committed a major rule violation but entered his cell cooperatively until the attendant began confiscating his personals. A local charity had distributed transistor radios on Christmas Eve. Timmy disassembled his present. Before the attendant could snatch all the strewn radio components off the floor, Timmy grabbed one of the magnets and zinged it out his cell doorway. His throw struck the bay window behind the Console, cracking its glass. A supervisor shipped Timmy back to 3B and maintenance removed the glass shards to install plywood. Timmy soon called Attendant Rucker, who unlocked his steel door at breakfast time, a “fat bastard.” Timmy said the man shorted his food plate. Rotund and under six feet tall yet weighing three hundred pounds, many staff joked that Rucker struggled to fit through cellblock door frames. “The kid’s right. What can Rucker say ‘I’m not fat’?” one attendant remarked to me. Another sympathizer for Timmy, though not the one he would need most.
Coincidentally, I volunteered for overtime the night before Timmy’s next court appearance. The shift was easy, mindless money—inmates were locked in their cells the entire eight hours, except for several overflows sleeping on folding cots. I cycled out the revolving exit doors a little after 6:00 A.M. Tiptoeing onto sidewalk snow and salt, the wind-whipped air at eight degrees Fahrenheit knifed my pores. Our parking garage across Hamilton Avenue obstructed the sun’s warming beam in its climb above Chicago’s plain running up to Lake Michigan. The partial sunlight lent the crunchy mix a shady tint. In a couple hours, the slush brighter, moms and dads (mostly moms), Timmy’s mother among them, would slog their way to the same glass entryway, hoping to depart later that arctic January morn with their vindicated sons and daughters.
Two days after Timmy’s hearing, Attendant Haines, another regular 3B attendant, opened the boy’s steel door. Timmy was finishing his five-day Confinement sentence for breaking the glass wall section. Haines asked how he’d fared with the judge. The man had three small children of his own and often motioned Timmy aside for pep talks about dodging trouble—not everyone thought him a bad little motherfucker. Timmy called Haines his “personal caseworker.” Timmy cried to Haines that his mother abandoned her custody rights and turned him over to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services—punishment for the shattered window. Otherwise Timmy would have left with her, Caseworker Hampton later confirmed. Timmy was no closer to returning home than the day of his arrest. Whenever the court finally released him, be it from jail or Placement, Timmy wouldn’t go home. DCFS would determine Timothy’s home. So neither Attendant Bradley, Dr. Jacobs, myself, nor the obese attendant who wouldn’t furnish him enough scrambled eggs was Timothy’s worst enemy.
A caseworker transferred Timmy back to the fifth-floor but not to 5G and Attendant Bradley. Normally 5A housed no twelve-year-olds, but administration granted an exception. While older, 5A boys were undersized, many fourteen, a few fifteen. The system was conforming to Timmy now. He remained on 5A well into the New Year until his judge did ship him to Placement—a group home somewhere on the city’s South Side. Haines, Parker, Simons, myself, and Caseworker Hampton expected him to be detained much longer. We figured Timmy’s judge would nail him with Damage to County Property for his window job. Mom treated him harder than his magistrate. I wanted to curse Ms. Tyler for her avenue of least deliberation and resistance, letting us continue to deal with Timmy. She was no grown woman. She was a child just like Timmy, yet I wondered what this ‘child’ knew that I didn’t.
During another Medical duty tour, a name at the top of the fifth-floor meds list stopped me. “Timmy Tyler is back?” I stammered, swiveling toward coworkers. “Yeah, he’s back. Came in this weekend,” Attendant Parker answered. He hadn’t forgotten Timothy either. If juveniles found obedience in our lockup arduous, Placement was worse. Such facilities were not secure—few barriers to keep jumpy boys like Tiny Timmy Tyler from dashing off premises. If one managed to behave there, a judge might release him outright to his parents, legal guardians, or DCFS. Should he really “act a fool” at Placement, not only would he be banished back to jail, his judge might re-indict him. Timmy’s name on the medication list surprised me. Three months had passed since his departure and his conduct improved once on 5A. I expected to never see him again. Caseworker Hampton verified that Timmy ran away from the group home and was arrested again.
Timothy was lucky.
A month before the window incident, Timmy and an equally runtish 3J Close Watch kid had planted themselves in adjacent cell door windows after Lights-Out and shouted. Overflow inmates lying on cots savored the boys’ sexual banter degrading the other’s mother, giggling instead of drifting off to sleep, as did juveniles housed in cells on either side of the two ad-libbing standup comedians. Attendants extracted everything from both cells, but the duo required no vinyl mattresses and scruffy blankets to frolic in darkened door windows, executing the vulgar exchange, “back and forth, like a tennis match,” Attendant Simons recounted visiting 3J that night to deliver his overflows. “Were they enemies?” I soon asked the attendant stationed front row at the Console during the duel. “No, they fed off each other.” A judge freed Timothy’s verbal adversary a few weeks following the late night insult show. An evening not long after his release, he sat with two men in a parked car. Someone approached the car and opened fire, killing the boy. The Chicago Sun-Times reported the thirteen-year-old’s death in its Metro Briefs column. “He was safer in here than he was on the street,” one 3J attendant said when we talked about the murder. I remembered the kid’s final words to me: “Mr. D., you locked me up!” Before Dr. Jacobs had transferred Timothy from Medical to 3J, I’d worked 3J and this boy mocked my order to serve Wall-Time for talking in the TV Area. My coworker grimaced: Don’t let him do that! Stand up for yourself! I barked at the kid to step to his cell. No way would I allow this shorty to go Jimmy-and-Vernon on me. He stood up from his seat two rows from the television and strut-walked to his cell door. I bolted him behind the Plexiglas and wrote a report. Weeks later we passed in a hallway, 3J marching one direction and my block the opposite. The soon-to-be deceased boy saw me and blurted his comment endearingly, as if he was proud that I’d Confined him. Reminding me of it seemed to make him feel good—negative attention was superior to no attention. Without replying, I glanced over my shoulder. His mangy Afro and pug nose were poised likewise over his shoulder, glancing at me. Hell yeah, I locked you up! Follow my orders the first time! Now with the boy buried in a cemetery, I was still proud of myself for not granting him a second chance to step to that wall.
On my first Children’s Attendant day, Confinement was the Gulag and I fantasized sneaking the master key off my trainer attendant’s belt and freeing lonely-looking Confined inmates for cards and television. Now I viewed it like opening an umbrella in a rainstorm. Seeing the Sun-Times clipping and then musing with the 3J attendant, the slain boy’s family mourning never became one of my thoughts. Rather I calculated how cellblock 3J would be easier if I worked it again. That kid wouldn’t be there and the other kids would know that I wouldn’t take any shit from them, like I hadn’t taken any shit from the kid who’d just been shot dead in a car in the dark. Not taking shit from the juveniles, starting with shorties like Timmy and his insult contest foe, was evolving into my most basic mission.