Cherie Livett Bombell

Kids Behind Bars, Geneva Illinois

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.

A new reader to this site has taken some pictures of the cemetery in Fox Run, Geneva Illinois. Except for this cemetery, there is no visual evidence that Illinois Youth Center at Geneva ever existed in Geneva or that hundreds of children, young men and women spent years behind bars at the facility.

It seems somehow fitting that Devin’s photos have a lonely, eerie feel.

These simple stones remind us of babies and young woman forgotten by society. Thank you for sharing these photos with us, Devin.

Mike was eventually paroled to the YMCA in Aurora Illinois where he continued to attend junior college. Because of the temptations and pressure of friends in his old neighborhood, he agreed not to be paroled to Chicago. The realization that Chicago wasn’t a good option came after Mike visited his family on furlough. He’d smoked pot and excitedly told me on his return, “My fence was so glad to see me!”. The parole to Aurora didn’t last. He called frequently complaining that he hadn’t heard from his parole office who he expected to link him to the community and find a permanent place to live. I sensed that he was lonely.

His downfall came when he decided to visit his grandmother who lived upstairs from his mother and sister in Chicago. He never went back to Aurora. After a while, his mother called me concerned. She thought he was living in the basement, crawling in through the window late at night. She was also concerned that he might steal their TV and sell it for drugs. It was likely Mike was back on heroin continue reading…

Over the months, as Mike’s boxing skills improved, so did his physical strength and mental capability. His coach was impressed with his progress and thought he was ready for a fight – ‘let’s see if he can take a punch’. Mike was registered to fight in a competition near Chicago. The build up to the big event was exciting as Mike became a symbol of achievement and hope in the institution. On the night, the tension was unbearable; I’m sure I could smell fear and anxiety as I sat in the audience waiting. Mike’s fight finally came. He delivered some well placed hits but his lack of experience showed as his opponent pelted him with punches. Mike certainly proved he could ‘take a punch’. After that, he lost interest in boxing and focused more on getting his high school diploma. Although Mike gave up boxing as a sport, the training and discipline gave him confidence, recognition and physical and mental strength. It gave him his life back.

Except in institutions, Mike hadn’t been to school since he was first locked up at 12 years old. He earned his high school diploma while at Geneva and (again with much advocating) was enrolled at a Junior College in Aurora. Several times a week, he was allowed to leave the institution and attend classes in the nearby community. But the story isn’t all good news and wonderful.

For a few days, I’d noticed Mike was listless, moody and unmotivated. He hadn’t come to my office like usual and other staff were beginning to be concerned. I finally went to his room and asked him what was going on. My question unleashed a deep seated anger, and most of it was directed at me. After a few minutes of angrily ranting continue reading…

Recently I was looking at some old aerial shots of Geneva and was shocked to see how big Geneva Girls School really was. You know how it is, you go back to somewhere in your past and it always looks bigger? That’s certainly true in this case.

Whether intended or not, the Department of Corrections isolated inmates from family and friends by building this ‘reform school’ a long way from where inmates lived. Because of poverty and lack of transport, it was almost impossible for most families to visit their children. How would you feel if you were a parent in that situation – traumatized with fear of what was happening to your child; helpless that you couldn’t be there to protect and comfort them; guilty that you were powerless to advocate or make a difference to their situation? And when they return home, they are different people than you kissed good-bye.

This picture is from 1974 – the Fox River and water treatment plant is on the left. Can anyone remember the buildings and what they were for? What are the names of the cottages; is Geneva bigger than you remember? Please share with all readers what you recall by leaving a comment.

Click on this thumbnail and it will connect you to the Historical Aerials site so you can get a better picture, zoom in closer and look at the surrounding areas.

Thanks for sharing this picture with us, Steve. I appreciate your support of this site.

Hi Folks. I feel like I’ve been out of touch for a while and I’ve missed you. Have had computer problems and a short stint in hospital – all fine now.

Brenda’s story is really hitting home with people. I’ve received a number of emails from people remembering the same things – especially similar experiences, feelings and memories of the doctor. Also heard from people that were never in Geneva but are moved by what Brenda has written. If you haven’t read Brenda’s Stories yet, please take a few minutes to hear what she has to say. You’ll find it under the ‘Your Legacy’ page. And, please, give her some feedback and leave a comment continue reading…

One of the guys I knew the longest at Geneva was Mike (not his real name). He walked into my office for the first time, looking like an old, decrepit man. He didn’t or couldn’t look up. His face was drawn and bony; his body thin, shriveled and folded down onto itself. His affect was like his body; curling inward, protecting the delicate, fragile center. It was the early 70s and Mike was 18.

Mike, like all juveniles sentenced to be incarcerated in Illinois, was first sent to ‘Reception’ at Joliet for assessment and placement in one of the institutions in the state. He was a heroin addict and had come off cold turkey while at Joliet. It was hard to tell if the lack of eye contact was due to his question-mark posture or an internal void. He’d been through hell and there didn’t appear to be much left of him physically, emotionally or spiritually.

An ex-Marine working as a Cottage Supervisor at Geneva, discovered Mike’s interest in boxing. He knew the Junior Boxing coach from the Olympics in Mexico City. With much advocating (and begging), I was able to gain approval for Mike to train with this coach.  Mike’s body started to recover and gain strength.  This was the pathway for his journey to wellness.  He had an interest, a goal and a reason to live.

I didn’t know on that first day that Mike would be one of many young people whose futures would haunt my thoughts 40 years later – did he survive the streets, drugs and future incarcerations; did he reach his 50s or die with a needle in his arm.  I’ll tell you more about Mike and what I learned from him and other inmates at Illinois State Training School for Girls (aka the ‘Girls School’) in future posts.

btw have you checked out Brenda’s and Mya’s Story under the Your Legacy page?  Amazing stories from courageous women – don’t miss them.  If their stories resonate with you be sure to let them know.  Brenda will be writing more about her experiences so stay tuned.  If you would like to tell your story, please contact me.

I’m not sure all of my readers want to be reminded of what the ‘Girls School’ correctional institution at Geneva looked like. For those of you that are interested, here are some photos taken in the early 1900s from the Geneva vintage postcard collection. The trees aren’t as big as I remember but the buildings are certainly the same just newer. Thanks, Steve, for sending me this link.  Sorry I couldn’t get it to hyperlink – you’ll have to copy and paste into your browser.

The inmates were only a few years younger than me. Most were smart though not well educated; most came from inner city Chicago – ‘the ghetto’. Most were born into poverty and I into security.

Some of the guys with their supervisor and me.

They’re black; I’m white. My color and social standing bestowed ‘privilege’ on me – a valuable commodity that those kids didn’t have access to.

The lack of privilege and justice was glaringly obvious one night when my roommates and I had two of the higher officials from the Juvenile Division of Dept of Corrections for dinner. My roommate’s stepfather was one of those men and she’d invited them for a meal while they were in Chicago on business from Springfield. After dinner, the other man (I think he was second in charge of the juvenile division but my memory isn’t positive) reached into the inside pocket of his expensive tan sports coat and pulled out a nickel bag. He proceeded to roll a joint for dessert! At the time, I had a young man locked up after being busted when he dropped one joint at the L.

I’d like to tell you that, in an outrage, I told the man off, grabbed his nickel bag and demanded he leave my home (or, better yet, I called the cops). Unfortunately, in my youth I didn’t have the confidence or presence of mind to do that. I did leave the table and walked out of my apartment while they filled my kitchen with smells of the weed that had put many others, those not born to privilege, behind bars.

When I started at Geneva, the institution going through a period of major change. The kids were being allowed out of their rooms more often and a behavior modification program was initiated with a token economy. Where previously inmates were contained most of the time unless they were going to school or eating, now they had more ‘freedom’ and the opportunity to make decisions about how their time was spent and how they behaved.

Prior to this, it was common to have periodic ‘crack ups’. continue reading…

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