Preparing others for the next chapter

May 10, 2019

La PORTE — Leaders across the United States and Indiana — including in La Porte County — are shining the spotlight on an underappreciated, yet vital, segment of the law enforcement community this week.

Earlier this week, La Porte County Commissioner and former Michigan City Mayor Sheila Brillson Matias stopped by the La Porte Juvenile Correctional Facility to celebrate National Correctional Officer and Employees Week, which began on Sunday and runs through this Saturday. Speaking to the employees and residents of the girls-only facility, the local leader read a proclamation from Gov. Eric Holcomb that thanked the men and women who serve inside Indiana’s correctional facilities for their service and dedication.

Matias and the other commissioners also recognized corrections officers with the La Porte County Sheriff’s Department during their meeting last week at the county complex. There, Sheriff John Boyd called several senior officers with the local jail to the front of the meeting room, where he honored them for their work.

During her remarks at the La Porte Juvenile Correctional Facility this week, Matias said that the general public often overlooks the work of corrections officers. It is due to their watchful eyes that residents can sleep soundly at night with the knowledge that the community’s jails and prisons are safe and secure.

In comparison to officers with other corrections facilities, employees of the La Porte Juvenile Correctional Facility — the only secure correctional facility in the state for 14- to 18-year-old girls — have an especially unique challenge. More than just mere turnkeys, many of the employees at the state-run facility serve as teachers, counselors and mentors for the teenagers staying there.

“You do really good job of preparing human beings for their next chapter,” Matias said. “That’s really important work. Not only are you keeping these young ladies safe, but you’re helping them improve themselves.”

La Porte Juvenile Correctional Facility, located on the outskirts of La Porte off Johnson Road, was known as Camp Summit back when the site served as a boot camp for boys convinced of juvenile offenses. In late 2017, the state converted the building into a detention center for high-risk teen girls convicted for robbery, drug abuse and other serious crimes.

Around 40 teens — who the staff call residents rather than prisoners or inmates — currently reside at the building. Despite their circumstances, the girls’ routines are similar to that of other teens: they attend classes inside the facility, they hang out with friends in their free time, they gather for group projects such as tending to the facility’s outdoor garden.

As to be expected of their age, there is plenty of drama to go around, though the teens never fail to put a smile on the faces of Warden John Galipeau and his staff.

“It’s a lot like having 40 girls over for a slumber party, only mom doesn’t come to pick them up the next morning,” Galipeau joked.

A production team with the Netflix documentary TV series “Girls Incarcerated” — which followed the inmates of the Madison, Indiana, facility before its relocation to La Porte — recently visited the local building to film a second season of the show.

With the average stay being six months, the facility’s employees only have a short time to work with each girl. Through their guidance, the staff hopes the teens learn from past mistakes and avoid any further encounters with the criminal justice system, Galipeau said.

“It takes a very special person who cares about you, who wants to dedicate their day [to help you],” Matias said to the teens during her talk. “They wake up every morning thinking about you, and when they walk out the door and get in their car, do you think they forget about you? No, they do not. They do not.”

Matias told the girls about her past, growing up as the daughter of immigrants in a low-income household in Cleveland. Despite her family’s lack of wealth, Matias overcame her obstacles, working her way through college, becoming an English teacher and serving as a two-term Michigan City councilwoman and mayor.

Despite their difficult pasts, Matias encouraged the teens to make the most of their stay at the juvenile facility and to take advantage of the mentorship the staff offers them.

“While you’re here and making some friends with the other girls, try to help them,” Matias said. “Try to be your best self. Be kind, be empathetic and make yourself a better human being. We’re all works in progress.”