Fox Sued Over ‘Empire’ Filming at Juvie Center

     CHICAGO (CN) — Family members of children housed at Chicago’s juvenile detention center claim in court the kids were forced to sit in chairs for days at a time while the hit TV show “Empire” was filming there.
     “Three times during the summer of 2015, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center was placed on lockdown so that it could be used as a film set to shoot scenes for ‘Empire,’ a hit Fox television show,” a 37-page lawsuit states. “Numerous areas that are essential to the JTDC’s mission of educating and rehabilitating the children housed there – including the JTDC’s school, its facilities for family visits, its only outdoor recreation yard, its library, and its chapel – were placed off limits so that Fox’s agents and employees could use them to stage and film the show.”
     The relatives of T.S. and Q.B., two minors residing at the detention center during filming, filed a class action against Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Broadcasting Company, Twenty-First Century Fox, Cook County, and John Does in Federal Court on Wednesday.
     “The purpose of these lockdowns was to provide Fox with a realistic prison facility to use as the primary set of two highly profitable ‘Empire’ episodes,” the complaint states.
     Meanwhile, the children who normally went to school, exercised, and visited their family members in those parts of the building were instead allegedly confined to “pod” areas right outside their cell doors for days on end.
     Filming at the five-story facility lasted of total of two weeks, split into three separate visits. One of the reasons for the multiple visits is that the character played by comedian Chris Rock “had originally been depicted as a cannibal,” but Fox executives wanted to reshoot those scenes, according to the class-action lawsuit.
     During filming, the children’s’ “schooling continued in name only, visits from their families were interrupted, cut back, or effectively eliminated, sick-call requests were ignored, and programs that are intended to help them overcome the problems that landed them at the JTDC in the first place were cancelled or interrupted,” the complaint alleges.
     Keeping the children confined to their “pods” is more restrictive than conditions found at many adult jails, the relatives claim.
     “Whereas inmates in an adult jail are typically allowed to move around their ‘day rooms’ as they please, children on the pods at the JTDC must all remain sitting in the same spot, at all times. If a child needs to use the restroom or otherwise leave his seat, that child must raise his hand and receive permission from the guards. While that child is out of his seat, no other children may leave their seats. Breaking this rule – that is, if one child stands up without first receiving permission — is punishable as a ‘major rule violation,'” according to the complaint.
     The pod areas, described as “essentially a large, enclosed corridor outside of a row of cells,” are equipped with a television, but nothing else to entertain or educate a room of 15 to 20 troubled children, the family members say.
     Teachers were ordered to go teach the children in their pods, but without even a whiteboard and with children who had been forbidden to move all day long, instruction was often impossible, according to the lawsuit.
     Sometimes an instructor would arrive to ask the children if they wanted to partake in “large muscle activity” such as push-ups and sit-ups in front of their chairs. However, they were allegedly not allowed to go outside while “Empire” was filming, the complaint states.
     Children’s visitation with their family members were also allegedly canceled or significantly shortened during this period because the visiting areas had been turned into staging areas for filming equipment.
     Internal documents cited in the lawsuit are said to show that JTDC staff were directed to leave their normal duties to help escort the TV show’s massive film crew around the facility, or to participate as extras.
     Not only did the filming interrupt the children’s daily lives, the lockdown was “psychologically damaging to children in and of itself,” their relatives say.
     “Placing children for days on end under the forced idleness that governed in the pods is psychologically and emotionally harmful,” the lawsuit states. “This is particularly so for a vulnerable population like the children housed at the JTDC, many of whom come from unstable or broken homes and suffer from psychological trauma and diagnosed psychological impairments.”
     The complaint does not state how much Fox paid Cook County for use of the juvenile center, scenes of which were featured prominently in the first two episodes of the second season of “Empire.”
     “Empire,” however, has been a big success for Fox, with advertisers paying $750,000 per 30-second advertising spot in the first episode of season two, and $600,000 per 30-second advertising spot in the second episode, according to the class action.
     The complaint says the crew arrived to film at the facility just four weeks after a federal judge transferred administration of the facility back to Cook County. Systematic mistreatment of children housed at the facility forced the appointment of a federal administrator to take over operation of the center in 2008.
     The children’s family members seek disgorgement of Fox’s earnings from the scenes using the JTDC as a set, plus punitive damages for violation of due process, unlawful seizure, conspiracy and breach of fiduciary duty.
     The class is represented by Stephen Weil with Eimer Stahl in Chicago.
     Twentieth Century Fox spokesman Chris Alexander said the company has no comment at this time.
     Cook County did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

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