Dying Young

A death at Adobe Mountain raises questions about conditions in youth prisons

A boy who died in an apparent suicide at an Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections facility was locked in his cell for more than a week at a time and complained repeatedly that a staff member was touching boys inappropriately, according to internal ADJC documents.

ADJC has released almost no official details about the life and death of Christopher Camacho, who was found dead with a sheet tied around his neck at about 8:40 p.m. April 11, sources say. Department spokesman Steve Meissner says the death is under investigation.

Camacho's apparent suicide was the first death in a state juvenile corrections facility in 14 years, state officials say. No one knows yet -- or at least they're not saying publicly -- why Camacho may have felt the need to take his own life.

An unidentified boy in lockdown at Adobe Mountain.
Dan Huff
An unidentified boy in lockdown at Adobe Mountain.


More stories in the Slammed special report.

What is known is that the living conditions in Freedom, the cottage where Camacho lived, were not optimum, according to ADJC documents obtained by New Times. In February, Camacho filed a formal grievance against Michael Cowie, a youth corrections officer assigned to Freedom.

In the grievance, filed February 12, Camacho wrote: "Mr. Cowie a staff on Freedom inappropriately touching kids in this unit. (Butt) He looks at kids when they are drying off after a shower."

The supervisor's response, written on the bottom of the grievance form: "I have spoken to Mr. Cowie now three times. It is his life style [sic] and personality to be physically affectionate. I have set him a set of directives to follow. . . . He understands he has set his boundaries and space better and if he wants to hug and pat a kid not to. I will follow at least weekly on his progress."

On February 18, a youth rights advocate met with several Freedom youth to discuss the complaints against Cowie. The next day, she wrote to ADJC officials: "Due to the serious nature of these allegations and the youth's [sic] need to feel safe and comfortable within there [sic] environment, I am requesting that an investigation be conducted immediately and that Mr. Cowie be removed from working directly with all youth."

Meissner did not respond to questions regarding the status of Cowie's employment with ADJC or to a request for an interview with Cowie.

The youth rights advocate also has expressed concern in recent weeks, in repeated memos and e-mails, regarding the issue of locking kids in their cells for days or weeks at a time. Adobe Mountain officials call the practice of locking up an entire cottage "large group status," but most staff members refer to it as a "lock down." Either way, the youth are locked in their cells almost around the clock -- forced to eat, study and exercise in the tiny cinderblock rooms.

Meissner refused to comment on allegations that the ADJC youth rights advocate has begged her superiors to address, including concerns about dehydration and denial of adequate exercise, education and access to clergy.

"The issues are serious violations of state, federal and constitutional laws," she wrote in one memo.

In another, she detailed that, as of March 26, the Freedom cottage -- Camacho's cottage -- had been on lockdown for more than a week. "The youth's rooms are very hot, the youth are not getting outside activity," she wrote. Another cottage, Hope, was on lockdown for more than two weeks in March.

After 14 days, the youth rights advocate wrote, "The kids apparently have not been to education, have not had recreation, and have not been outside of their rooms. Meals are being served inside their rooms. One room had three boys in it, and there were only two bunks, so a mattress had to be placed on the floor. The three boys were eating at the time, and the one on the floor was just about 2 feat [sic] from the toilet. I just don't see how this is therapeutic. Where is the intervention? Why are these kids having to live in these conditions?"

Three days later, she wrote of the youth in Hope: "They have had a limited amount of large muscle movement (less than 10 minutes per day) and have had no opportunity to go out doors [sic] and get a breath of fresh air. The courts have found that when similar issues have been raised, denying prisoners the opportunity for fresh air and regular exercise violates the Eighth Amendment." The kids were given educational material of a second-grade academic level, she added.

Further, she wrote: "The temperatures in the rooms shared by 3 youth are high and the ventilation is not adequate, proper air flow in the rooms are [sic] extremely important for the youth who have to eat meals in close proximity to the toilet. . . . The water in the unit has been turned off, which does not allow the youth to drink water at their discretion or flush the toilets after they have gone to the bathroom. The youth are given small cups of water every few hours, which is not sufficient to prevent dehydration. Consequently, the youth have complained of extreme fatigue which may be an indication of not drinking enough fluids or having regular exercise."

Two days later, she e-mailed a supervisor who informed her that Hope was still on lockdown.

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