Program has troubled teens experience night in jail

by: Greg Suskin Updated:

CHESTER, S.C. - Fourteen teenagers are spending Friday night locked up in jail; their parents paid to put them there.

The hope is that a night in jail will make them realize that they never want to go back.

Their parents drive them to a parking lot in Chester where sheriff's deputies meet them with handcuffs and an uncomfortable ride in the back of a patrol car. They then spend an entire night in jail.

"We're not trying to scare kids. We're trying to give them a different mindset," said Deputy Sgt. Johnny Neal, who's in charge of the new program called Project STORM, which stands for "Showing Teens Our Real Mission."

Chester County is one of only two places in the nation to house kids in jail overnight this way. The other is Richland County, S.C., where the idea originated.

"We're going to show 'em up front right now what jail is all about," said Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood. "We need to turn these kids around."

Underwood said the problem is teenagers have too little to do, so they're tempted by street gangs and the drug world. He hopes to reach at-risk teens before they end up with criminal records.

"I'd rather deal with a child before they make a bad decision then after they make a bad decision," Underwood said.

Tamika McMullen's 18-year-old son will be one of the first in the STORM program. He'll be locked up Friday night with 13 others.

"I think it'll be an eye opener for him," McMullen said. "He's kind of a follower, and I feel like going through this program, and some other stuff he's gone through, he's going to become a leader."

The program costs $25, which includes the cost of a prison uniform and one small, not-at-all-tasty meal. Most teens will be brought to the program by their parents, or referred through schools, family court or the Department of Juvenile Justice.

However, the kids aren't the only ones getting a strong message. Parents who sign their kids up must take part in a training class that focuses on dealing with problems in the home.

"The parents need to be a big part of this," Underwood said.

There is also a follow-up after the night in jail, Neal said.

"We're going to stay up with these kids, and monitor them in the months ahead. We want to see them successfully complete the program," he said.

Some of the teens sent to jail for a night knew ahead of time what was coming. Others were not told and won't have any idea at first why they're being put in handcuffs and incarcerated.

Deputies hope that tough approach will make the program more effective. The teens will also get the chance to talk to deputies about making right choices and even hear from inmates.

Even though STORM is being run from Chester County, the program is open to families in surrounding counties as well. Underwood said hundreds of families have already shown interest.