Kid Row

Isolated, abused and lacking mental health care, do juvenile offenders leave state custody in worse shape than when they went in?

On a warm day in mid-May, the Black Canyon School campus is quiet and clean, the rose and hibiscus bushes as well-groomed as the girls in their white sneakers, khakis and regulation bras visible beneath peach polo shirts. The Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections girls school -- off Happy Valley Road on I-17 in far north Phoenix -- doesn't look much like a juvenile detention facility until a guard rushes by, paged by security, and you notice that the doors are thick metal and lock automatically with a heavy, institutional click. Even the razor wire is covered in ivy, a whimsical touch for a place that houses delinquent kids.

Next door is the boys' school, Adobe Mountain, an equally serene setting with yellow-teed young men raking the grounds or walking in double lines to the cafeteria. They wear funny-looking belts with their jeans, Velcro closures instead of metal buckles.

ADJC operates facilities in Buckeye and Tucson, as well, with about 1,000 kids housed by the state's juvenile corrections system at a time -- just a tiny percentage of the 40,000-plus who show up for juvenile court. A kid will appear in court an average of six times before being "disposed" -- the lingo is different with juveniles, you don't say sentenced -- to ADJC.

Steve Granitz/Rogers & Cowan
A boy in his cell at Adobe Mountain.
Dan Huff
A boy in his cell at Adobe Mountain.

Details

More stories in the Slammed special report.

You'll rarely find a youth in ADJC custody anymore for a serious violent crime. But while their crimes may be petty -- repeat offenses for probation violation, trespassing, shoplifting, alcohol possession -- these are kids with serious problems: drug addiction, abusive homes, gang involvement, mental illness.

"The reality is we have a pretty good track record," says Steve Meissner, the ADJC spokesman who regularly leads tours through Adobe and Black Canyon. Today he's got a group of Maricopa County probation officers, and Meissner is a good salesman, proudly showing off the facilities' clean grounds and specialized programs.

"One of the reasons we're as good as we are is because we got our butts sued," he says disarmingly, explaining that it cost the state $35 million to make improvements required by the federal court after conditions at ADJC facilities were found substandard in the late '80s and early '90s. Although the court order requiring changes expired in 1998, ADJC has only continued to get better, Meissner tells the probation officers.

And after a three-hour, feel-good tour, you might just believe him.

Don't.

Isolated, Locked Down Too Long

Rebecca appeared to be in a trance as she sat in chapel one Sunday this past April. She began hallucinating out loud, according to reports taken at the time, slapping and punching herself in the face.

When Rebecca ran out the door, other girls and corrections officers chased her, finally forcing her face down on the ground and trying to keep her from slamming her head into the gravel while she was handcuffed.

And then, as frequently happens when befuddled staff don't quite know what to do with terribly troubled kids, Rebecca was locked up by herself.

On April 17, security guards brought Rebecca to the "separation unit" -- the agency's euphemism for solitary confinement -- at Black Canyon School.

According to materials from Rebecca's file obtained by New Times, the girl was kept in almost constant isolation for more than two weeks, in a small, dim cell outfitted only with a bed frame and mattress, metal toilet and sink, and a Bible.

She was allowed to exercise one hour a day; another hour a day was spent with a teacher, even though children are to receive four hours of education per day. Rebecca was never to leave her cell without a guard. She received a visit from a chaplain once a week, a counselor three times a week and a psychiatrist "when needed." She could make one five-minute phone call per week.

Rebecca's case sounds eerily similar to the case of Matthew Davey Johnson.

In 1986, Tucson civil rights attorney Grace McIlvaine was asked to represent Johnson, who was being held at Catalina, a juvenile corrections facility near Tucson. McIlvaine recalls the first visit she made to Johnson; he had been in solitary confinement for about a month, as part of a behavior-modification plan endorsed by the agency's director, James Upchurch.

"There was a cement floor, cement block walls, very narrow windows, like not even a foot wide, and they were so dirty you could hardly see out so there was almost no natural light," McIlvaine remembers. "There was no furniture except for a toilet and a sink and a metal bed that had a metal rim that stuck up around the edge so if you tried to sit on it, it cut into the back of your legs. . . . No mattress. No chair. No radio, no TV. He was allowed one book, the Bible."

That visit led to the lawsuit and court order, designed to ensure that draconian conditions in the state's youth corrections facilities improved. And they did, for a while.

Now, as cases like Rebecca's suggest, ADJC administrators are allowing conditions to deteriorate.

According to her file, Rebecca was to remain in separation until her 18th birthday on May 29 -- at which time she would be released from ADJC's custody to the street -- or until she completed the "Six Principles of Behavior," an extensive series of worksheets requiring her to answer essay questions about acceptable behavior at Black Canyon.

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