(Crystal A. Proxmire, July 14, 2013)
The Oakland County “U Turn” Program was featured on the A&E TV series “Beyond Scared Straight” on July10, and remains available online. The series looks at programs that introduce young people who have been in trouble to what life inside jail is like.
The program is a partnership between the Sheriff’s Department and Youth Assistance, and it allows boys and girls aged 13-17 to come into the jail and face head-on the consequences of criminal behavior. It also emphasizes the importance of positive behavior, such as staying in school, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, making wise choices about peers, employment, and parental involvement.
Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard is proud of the program’s success. “We have about 8-12 thru each session, they occur usually at least once a month and 90% stay away from more formal action with youth assistance/courts,” he said.
“Beyond Scared Straight” looked at a group of teens with behavior problems, including an all-A student with a penchant for shoplifting, a boy with a love of weed and K2, and a youth who abused his parents both physically and mentally. Their tour brought them face to face with angry, cussing jail inmates and showed them just how unpleasant jail accommodations are.
From watching their parents get patted down, to laying on the floor with just a thin jail-issue blanket, to sitting in a detox chair, to seeing the crowded holding cells, the program can be enough to scare youth into wanting to avoid being in trouble with the law.
Parent participation is a crucial part of the U Turn experience. In the A&E program, Deputy Rupe explains “The parents are on the program because this is just as much of a learning experience for the parent as much as it is for the kids. I t may not be what I’m saying that he listens to, but looking down the hallway and seeing his mother in tears might be enough to make this kid change his life.”
Rupe also explained how the reality of jail and prison expands beyond the time served. “Comin’ to jail. Sittin’ in a cell with people bigger than you. That’s not the scary part,” he said. “The scary part of this is when you get in the adult system and you get back out, because your life’s over. You will never get a mortgage. You will never get a job. Getting’ back outside in the world, that’s when it gets real scary.”
The Main Oakland County Jail, located at 1201 North Telegraph, was built in 1973. The jail is a maximum security facility and has general inmate population housing of approximately 484 inmates.
The intake area for processing new arrests includes holding tanks and observation cells which accommodate a capacity of 156 inmates. The Corrective Services Division admits approximately 25,000 new arrests into the facility per year. The average daily inmate population is approximately 1,734. There are also annexes that house even more.
Youth are screened by counselors to make sure they would be capable of handling the experience and learning from it. Pat Breen, who has managed Youth Assistance programs through Oakland County for over 25 years, says that great care is put into the program to make sure that it not only scares kids into fearing jail, but positively encouraging them to make changes in their lives to be successful. “This is an intimidating place,” Breen said. “The sheriffs start out stern but over the course of the tour they give kids hope they can change things. The message is ‘You can make changes, and we believe you can make these changes’.”
Breen does follow up interviews with families six months and one year after tours. He said that of those that return the interviews, about 90% of the parents believed the tour made an impact on their child, and only about 10% of those say the effects were only short-term. The rate of stopping substance about is about 50%.
“It’s not a magic pill and it’s not for everybody. If a youngster is so embedded in criminal behavior and attitude, it may not turn them around. But for youngsters who are experimenting with negative choices, it may make them say ‘oh no, this is not where I want to be.
Judge Joseph Longo of the 43rd District Court in Ferndale is involved in Ferndale Youth Assistance and often refers youth to do the U Turn tours. “In some communities there is a certain romanticism to jail. You think going to jail makes you tough. But going and not only seeing it, but smelling it, what it’s like to be in there, seeing people who are meaner and tougher than you, it can give you pause,” Longo said. “It’s not like the movies. Once you’re in there, you’re a nobody in a sea of nobodies…There’s a lot of tears that come from real tough guys that go in thinking that jail is nothing.”
Longo said that the key is having Youth Assistance programs in place to identify kids when they are young and first headed down a troubled path. “The advantage is we can get kids early, as soon as they show signs of not caring for authority. If we waited until they got in the criminal justice system it might be too late.”
Youth Assistance offers many tools for their clients. Clients are youth who have been referred through police, courts and schools who have gotten into trouble with behavior like stealing, skipping school, fighting and acting out. Case workers help parents and students gain access to counseling, support programs, and other resources. “U Turn is just one of many tools we have to make a difference,” Breen said.
Parents and others interested in the U Turn program and other resources should reach out to their local Youth Assistance organization. More information can be found online at http://www.oakgov.com/sheriff/Pages/community_services/uturn.aspx.
To watch the A & E “Beyond Scared Straight” episode about Oakland County Jail visit http://www.aetv.com/beyond-scared-straight/video/oakland-county-mi-36214851815?pfilter=ALL+VIDEOS.