The Kids Are Not Alright

The Department of Juvenile Corrections is supposed to watch -- and rehabilitate -- troubled teens. But no one's watching the department.

• Staff members have sexual relations with kids.

• Kids are not adequately supervised.

• Kids are not the only ones in danger. Corrections officers and teachers are put at risk due to staffing shortages and because department policies are not followed.

• Because ADJC's youth rights division is run internally, it is impossible for juveniles to have adequate due process. The department's grievance policy is not utilized properly. Kids' complaints are sometimes not followed up on, and kids report they fear reprisals if they file grievances.

• Contrary to recommendations by national experts, ADJC keeps kids detained long past their sentences, and does not always adequately prepare them to be released.

• In many cases, children detained in Arizona are treated more harshly than their adult counterparts in the state. Kids serve time for petty offenses, receive longer sentences and are denied luxuries -- like radios and televisions in their cells -- that adult prisoners take for granted.

In preparing this story, New Times reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents released under the state's public records law -- including internal-affairs reports, incident reports, grievances, lawsuits, claims and statistics on offenses, use of force, exclusion and isolation. In addition, New Times obtained hundreds of pages of confidential internal memos, reports and juvenile case histories. Current ADJC employees at many levels -- from entry-level youth corrections officers to highly trained counselors to administrators and teachers -- were interviewed. All requested that their names not be used, for fear they would be fired.

ADJC turned down requests by the paper to interview Joe Taylor, Terri Capozzi and all other ADJC employees, allowing only director Gaspar and Public Information Officer Steve Meissner to speak for the agency. Agency officials also refused requests for interviews with juveniles currently detained by ADJC. Gaspar and Meissner declined to speak about individual juvenile cases, even though New Times is not using kids' names; they would not talk about personnel matters, either.

They refused to comment on Roberto and the lockdown at Nova cottage.


The same month of the Nova lockdown, in a different cottage at Adobe, staff showed kids a movie called "Blood In/Blood Out: Bound By Honor." The film is a violent, sexually explicit depiction of gang life on the streets -- and in the prisons -- of California. Not only does "Blood In/Blood Out" glamorize a life of crime, it's instructional: In many scenes, characters are shown making and using weapons in prison.

After the movie was shown, "unit youth broke up into two gangs modeled after those aggrandized in the movie. The youth began accruing weapons rapidly," ombudsman Terri Capozzi wrote in a complaint to ADJC officials.

Metal shanks and rods wrapped with masking tape were found in at least two youths' cells. They were put in solitary confinement, where they were told to "write a song or poem on what it means to be a positive youth."

It sounds as though ADJC is in need of reform. But the tragedy is that the practices uncovered by New Times have all taken place since 1998, after the system had already undergone substantial transformation ordered by the federal court. At the time, the agency was essentially pronounced cured, and, in fact, declared a national model.

A 1987 class-action lawsuit against ADJC resulted in the court order that dictated standards for everything from education to counseling to solitary confinement. The order expired in 1998, but while the practices were to be kept in place, scrutiny vanished. Even the department's most vociferous watchdogs admit they've ignored ADJC since.

"Something very fundamental will have to happen here," says Jan Christian, who served as executive director of the Governor's Task Force on Juvenile Corrections during the creation and implementation of the federal court order.

Christian, along with other local and national experts, reviewed the information New Times gathered. She is more than disheartened.

"I think a lot of people would say, `Oh, those are the old days when we used to take crazy people and lock them up and have them sit in their own feces and draw pictures with their own blood -- that really wouldn't happen again.'"

Christian and others say they assumed all was well under Gaspar, the latest director, whose extensive background in corrections and mental health treatment made him a natural to lead the agency. Indeed, Gaspar has earned himself and his agency a national reputation -- and some national awards -- for innovative programming in areas like substance-abuse treatment and family therapy. Gaspar is a big fan of research, and frequently touts studies that show the department's recidivism rates are down and other success indicators up.

But Gaspar fails to mention that his most recent data is almost entirely from 1998 and earlier. And critics say he's more concerned with what people outside his agency think of him than what really goes on inside.

In an interview last month, Gaspar was unwilling to address many of the specific concerns raised by New Times. In fact, he seemed surprised that anyone would question what goes on inside the walls of his agency. After all, he says, his job is really tough; no one else wants the kids he's got in custody. They are sent by county courts as a last-ditch attempt at reform, usually after committing many offenses.

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