Cherie Livett Bombell

Kids Behind Bars, Geneva Illinois

Brenda and I will be visiting the site of the former Geneva Girls School in August 2012. If you’d like to join us, please contact me via ‘Contact Me’ on this site. We’ll spend some time at the cemetery and pay our respects to the children buried there as well as those that spent part of their childhood behind the bars of Geneva.

Would love to meet you if you can join us.

Savage. His name was on my mind when I woke up this morning. Savage was the nick name of a young Puerto Rican man on Wallace Cottage. He was a born leader. He had poise and an air of authority that the other young men respected and looked to for direction. It eked out of him.

A few months after Savage was paroled, he called me. Excitement replaced his usually ‘cool’ manner as he told me about an Outward Bound experience that changed his life.

Savage was one of a number of young people from all over the US chosen by Outward Bound to participate in a National Geographic documentary. Participants were chosen from a range of diverse backgrounds; an African American man from Harlem, a white Jewish girl from a wealthy family, Savage, a Puerto Rican man from Chicago and others. All were thrown together to be challenged and grow.

He gushed about how it changed his life and how he was inspired to change the lives and circumstances of ‘his people’ in his neighborhood.

When the documentary came out on TV, Savage’s strong personality was evident; he was self-reliant and determined. What he lacked was trust and an ability to work with others to achieve goals. I watched him struggle to go it alone then finally learn to trust and reap the rewards of success with his teammates.

Throughout the program, Savage wore a hat displaying the flag of Puerto Rico. It was part of who he was; his identity. In one scene, his hat falls into a raging river. He risks drowning to save it.

The show climaxes with Savage being one of the few to reach their goal – the top of Santa Rosa, the highest peak in Chile.

Savage was the first Puerto Rican to climb the peak. He ceremoniously plants a stake, places his flag/cap on top and claims it for the people of Puerto Rico. Although 35 years ago, I still remember being moved by his success and the pride and achievement radiating from Savage at that moment. Everyone I knew that watched the show, was warmed and inspired by him. They recognised a talented man; a leader with a bright future.

And so we expect that defining moment to have changed Savage’s life and that he leads his people and his neighborhood to a place of peace and success. That’s not what happened. A few months later, I heard he was arrested for armed robbery. Like so many, the pull of poverty and environment was too great. Savage had a glimmer of what could be. I don’t know where he is today or if he survived his debilitating environment. I pray he was able to again find hope to lead him out of the cycle of prison and despair.

Imagine living in this much space. A tiny cell. Other areas of your ‘home’ are shared with at least 20 other people. There is no where to ‘get away’ except to your room and you can’t necessarily escape to your own space without permission.

Room at Illinois State Training School for Girls, Geneva Illinois. Courtesy of Geneva History Center Archives Collection

Prior to the early ’70, all activities were strictly controlled and scheduled. Inmates had very little ‘free’ time other than being either in school, eating a meal or locked in their rooms. For example, on weekends, a time was set aside specifically to write letters in your room. About 1970 with the appointment of a new Superintendent, the rules changed. ‘Behavior modification’ practices and a token system were introduced. People were given more responsibility and opportunities to make decisions. And, the institution became coed – young men were incarcerated and attended school with the girls and young women. Dances were organized on site and became a big incentive to make decisions that would allow you to attend.

This room is small and barren. My memories of the girls’ rooms in the 70s include desks stacked with things bought from the commissary with ‘tokens’ earned through good behavior. There was great demand for these purchases as accumulation of items provided a certain prestige among their peers. A product to condition feet was high on the list of preferred items to decorate the room. Does anyone remember what it was called – maybe ‘Happy Feet’? I don’t remember the boys decorating their rooms, putting the same value on similar purchases nor it bringing them the same prestige.

How would you like to spend hours in this tiny space? I wonder what it was like….. can any of you tell us?

This is how I remember Illinois State Training School for Girls, Geneva, Illinois. I used to park my car in the lot just opposite the guard station then walk through the middle of the grounds to Geneva Cottage or to Oak and Wallace Cottage on the right (just out of the picture). The cemetery is in the wooded area to the right. Even though I know there are beautiful homes built on this site now, I can’t imagine anything other than the place as it was when I worked there and youngsters were attending school, working and living in these buildings.

Does anyone know what all the buildings are? This is what I remember – correct me if I’m wrong. The little building at the entrance opposite the parking lot is the guard station. The building to the right of the driveway going to the second parking lot is the Administration Building (pathway to the door) with an employee residential building just to its right. Behind the second parking lot is the dispensary and the school to the right – the one with the steeple. Behind those buildings are the laundry, kitchen and other maintenance type buildings. Surrounding the middle are the cottages that became ‘home’ to the juveniles incarcerated there. Also a chapel is to the right of the school. I’m not exactly sure where but on the left was where inmates could go rollerskating and swimming. I remember a scary incident at the pool when an excited young girl saw the pool for the first time. She had never been in a swimming pool and couldn’t wait top get in and get wet. She jumped in, landed near me but couldn’t swim. Without any fear and laughing the whole while, she ‘climbed’ up me to stay above the water. I was pushed under and almost drowned!

This photo is a real memory jogger for me. I’d forgotten how big the institution was and how many buildings there were. What stories does it bring back to you?

This picture is provided courtesy of Geneva History Center Archives Collection

The following information and photograph was kindly provided by the Geneva History Center.

“Beginning July 23, 2011, the Geneva History Center museum will host Who Was Sadie Cooksey?, a photographic traveling exhibition developed by Maine photographer Maggie Foskett. The genesis of this exhibition reaches back to 1979, when Foskett stumbled onto an isolated cemetery on the former grounds of the Illinois State Training School for Delinquent Girls in Geneva. The “Girl’s School,” as it is known by locals, was located south of the railroad tracks on Route 25, where the Fox Run subdivision is today.

“The exhibition’s narrative concentrates on a single figure – Sadie Cooksey (1904-1924) – whose tombstone caught the photographer’s attention. Foskett explains that the exhibition’s title, Who Was Sadie Cooksey?, is a question with no answer. Sadie was one of hundreds of girls committed year after year for immorality or incorrigibility. The dates on her tombstone are all we know of her. Nevertheless, intensive historical research on Foskett’s part allows her to share with her audience a likely semblance of what Cooksey’s life was like on the school’s self-sufficient state run farm during the early years from 1894 to 1930.

“Foskett is celebrated for her cliché verre magnified and colorful photographic impressions of natural life taken without a camera or film. However, she changes course with this exhibition to present a documentary construction of adapted photographs from the Geneva History Center archives. She also includes original photographs of headstones from the Girl’s School cemetery developed in her signature X-ray style. The headstone photographs are incorporated into three-dimensional multimedia installations that reflect the environment of her memorable day photographing the cemetery in 1979. Although Foskett photographed many headstones in the cemetery choked with weeds and fallen branches on a gray afternoon thirty two years ago, it was not until 2002 that she developed the negatives and subsequently, the exhibition. Who Was Sadie Cooksey? was exhibited at the University of Maine at Presque Isle Reed Art Gallery in 2005 and at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in 2004.”

from Maggie Foskett's exhibition 'Who was Sadie Cooksey' courtesy of Maggie Foskett via Geneva History Center

In July, the Geneva History Center will host an exhibition titled Who Was Sadie Cooksey?. This is a traveling photo exhibition developed by Maine photographer, Maggie Foskett. With the genesis in 1979 when Ms Foskett took pictures of the cemetery at Geneva Training School, the exhibition focuses on a single individual whose tombstone caught the photographer’s eye; Sadie Cooksey 1904-1924.

The exhibition starts July 23, 2011 and will also host several programs. One is an author discussion by Dr Michael Rembis about his book, Defining Defiance: Sex, Science and Delinquent Girls, 1890 – 1960. Dr Rembis had exclusive access to Geneva State Training School information and thousands of case files from those years. His book “analyses how reformers in the last 19th Century and early 20th Century perceived delinquent girls and their often troubled lives”. You can find more information on his book at http://wix.com/mrembis/index

Another program, “Memories from the Girls School”, will include former staff talking about their experiences at the institution. The family of Bob Waters, former Assistant Superintendent 1960-1977, will also talk about living on the grounds.

Jessica McTague, the Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, asked permission to mention this website in some of the programs and possibly the exhibition. In an email, Ms McTague writes, “I think the website is a sincere reflection of the experiences of incarcerated juveniles. It is very brave for these women to share their stories. Our goal with the exhibition is to expose the community to the history behind the institution as well as the injustices and stigmas that these young girls faced especially in the early years of its operation. Since the cemetery is really the only physical remaining presence of the school in Geneva, I think that it is a history that needs to be retold not only so we may reflect upon the past but also to reflect upon present and future social practices.”

Over the next several days, I’ll be publishing some interesting photos kindly provided by Jessica and the Geneva History Center. Photos include a photo from the exhibition, an aerial shot of the grounds c. 1970 and the interior of a typical room. A couple women have told me they’d like to publish their stories on the site but I haven’t yet received them. With the upcoming attention on the institution, now is a good time to send to me so they can get the attention and validation they deserve.

I so wish that I could attend this exhibition. If anyone is able to go, please share your thoughts and the experience with all of us.

I got an email from a college friend, Michele, that read the post “Haunting Memory Finally Makes Sense”. She said, “You mention now, that you are older and wiser, you understand and are sorry, but would you have changed anything in the way you handled the situation? You couldn’t change your color, but would you have given him a “pass” because of his [color]?”

Interesting question. No, I wouldn’t have changed my response but I did gain insight. I don’t excuse people’s behavior but I do seek to understand what drives people to do what they do and make the choices they make. We all have history and are effected by our past experiences. Some of us will live in the horror of the past and act based on fear and hate while others will learn, forgive and move on to a better life. I see incredible courage of people forgiving and moving on through the emails and the personal stories I get from former inmates. Many people who write to me were incarcerated at Geneva as children because of abuse at home or the loss of parents and nowhere else to go.

Our world is unjust in so many ways. It damages our children and our society. Are we okay with that? It’s up to each of us as individuals to personally commit to stopping the prejudice, violence and hurt. As a start, we can speak up and intervene when we hear racist, violent and prejudice jokes or comments. It takes a lot of guts but by taking a stand, we can make a difference in our own circles that will ripple ever wider into the community. Be an example of the society you want for your children and grandchildren. We are creating it now.

Hope everyone is having a happy, loving Christmas with family and friends. I know for a lot of you, it hasn’t alway been that way. Many of you have told me how well your lives have turned out in spite of the abuse and the horror you experienced as children. I think the most rewarding part of the emails you send me and the stories you publish are the stories about your children and grandchildren: the fact you have brought love and acceptance to your children’s lives who have passed it onto their children. You found something inside your heart, maybe stength, love, faith……..something that broke the cycle of abuse and neglect. For that the world is blessed and I applaud you.

I hope you take this time of year to congratulate yourself for the adults you became when there were so many other choices and paths you could have chosen.

I’ve been overseas for almost two months and almost missed an email from Barbara. Barbara sent us the first chapter of her story that I know you will want to read in ‘True Stories’.

Best wishes for a joyous New Year. Cherie xx

I recently read Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson. It helped me to make sense of an incident that happened at Geneva in the 70s – one that has haunted me since.

A man that worked on Wallace Cottage sometimes made bad decisions. I’m going to call him Mr Jay. He played a saxophone. Jerome, one of the guys on Wallace, also played a saxophone. On a Sunday afternoon, Mr Jay locked all the other inmates in their rooms and took Jerome to the chapel for a couple hours of jamming. This was wrong in so many ways: kids were being isolated from other activities unfairly (punished), if there was a fire, people couldn’t escape from their rooms, it was unfair to the other inmates and pitted Jerome as a ‘favorite’, putting him in a compromising position with the others.

It wasn’t the first time Mr Jay had made irresponsible decisions. When I found out what happened, I called him into my office. I made sure I had the facts right so we talked about what actually happened on the day then the issues I had with his decision. I explained that it was serious and a potentially dangerous misjudgment. At the end, I told him I was going to document our conversation for the record. Mr Jay didn’t seem to care.

A week later I gave him a carbon copy of the note I’d made. At the bottom was typed, “cc: Personnel file”. When he realized a copy was going to his personnel file, he was livid. He stormed into my office, locked the door and pounded on my desk. I was scared. I stood up to meet him eye to eye but my knees were shaking. His fury filled the room as he yelled that I was responsible for the hanging of his cousin in Mississippi. His voice and anger screamed beyond the walls of my office. A couple inmates knocked on my door asking if I was alright. Outwardly, I tried to appear confident and in control but I was trembling inside. I tried to find words to calm him down. Finally I said, “Mr Jay, your actions are inappropriate. I will be documenting this incident.” Knowing another note would be put on his personnel file, he left my office slamming the door.

I felt justified in my actions but was stunned and never fully understood where this anger came from. I knew there was prejudice in our country. I knew people had been killed and hung because of their color and without justice but to my twenty-something, middle-class protected awareness, this was ancient history. I was a nice person; I was fair and just; I was loving and loved all people. I was idealistic and I was ignorant.

The true story Tyson tells in his book happened in 1970 – just three short years before my encounter with Mr Jay. The first line in the book quotes a ten year old boy, “Daddy and ‘em shot ‘em a nigger.” It powerfully introduces us to the prejudices and injustices of the time. Those words, prejudice and injustice, hardly seem adequate for what African Americans were experiencing in our country. An innocent man, Henry Marrow was chased, beaten and killed in public by a dad and his two sons. The KKK was active and they almost got away with it.

Now in my 60s (and as much as a white person is able to) I finally understand where Mr Jay’s anger came from. He wasn’t yelling at me in metaphors, he was speaking history. My world was so different, I didn’t understand – how could I understand? And to add further insult and pain to his being, here was a white woman, younger than him, naive to the realities of life, holding some control over his job and his life. Mr Jay, I have some inkling of understanding now and I am sorry.

Mr Tyson’s book was an important book for me. If you want a glimpse at the reality of our brutal racist history and begin to understand, highly recommend Blood done Sign My Name to you.

The last time I heard from Mike he was in Cook County Jail. He had somehow persuaded a guard to find my number in Aspen, Colorado and call me. Mike was shy and vulnerable so it’s not hard to understand that the guard felt compassion for him and helped make the call. I was shocked to hear his voice but not so surprised he was locked up again. Heroin is a powerful master that requires complete devotion and money gained through stealing. No matter how strong the desire to kick the habit, it still held control over every aspect of his life. The only way Mike had to serve this master was through burglary.

We chatted for a while then Mike went quiet; something was on his mind. After much persuasion, he finally spoke and with difficulty told me something he had never mentioned during the year he was at Geneva or during the months I had contact with him on parole. He had never told anyone this before. Mike said when he was first locked up at 13 he was sent to the Reception Center at Joliet. There he was sexually assaulted by a guard that made Mike preform oral sex on him. This abuse he kept totally to himself, trusting no one as the horror replayed in a continuous loop in his mind for eight years.

Mike was locked up at that young age to be ‘rehabilitated’ for being ungovernable (truancy) and deceptive practices. The judge probably thought his would help him ‘straighten out’. His mother must felt relief that her son would get the help he needed to settle down and attend school. Everyone’s trust was betrayed but not so much as Mike’s. His world was forever haunted by the horrors of this pedophile’s abuse.

I was furious but most of all, I felt helpless and a deep sense of sorrow for what could have been. At 13, Mike’s future was severely damaged. Was this the root of the heroin addiction? Was his whole life now destined to be impossible to live, enjoy, feel safe and find contentment?

When he called, I was preparing to leave for six months backpacking around the South Pacific to Australia. I begged Mike to confide in someone he trusted and to get help to deal with the trauma of the abuse. He promised me he would. That was the last time I heard anything about Mike. For over 30 years, I’ve wondered where he is and if he found peace. He told me many times he’d like to meet a girl to love and who loved him then have a family. I’ve prayed a million prayers that Mike found his love and is happy. And if that’s too ambitious for a child with Mike’s demons, I pray that he survived what was done to him and is still alive. Because, if he is, there is still hope.

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