Federal Inquiry

Justice Department examines conditions at state youth facilities

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating conditions at the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, ADJC Director David Gaspar announced in a June 18 memo to employees.

ADJC officials refused to discuss details of the investigation, but George Weisz, deputy chief of staff and crime advisor to Governor Jane Hull, confirmed that the probe will focus on safety and education issues, including whether appropriate use of force is being exercised to restrain kids in the state's juvenile corrections facilities.

"We believe that our juvenile justice system is solid and ADJC's contribution has been a strong part of Arizona's success in turning around a troubled population of young people . . . Because we are always interested in opportunities to improve our practices, we welcome this investigation by the federal government and pledge our full cooperation," Gaspar wrote in the memo.

Like Gaspar, Weisz speaks highly of ADJC. "I think they've done an outstanding job, especially in improving over the past five years," he says, adding that the quality of education at the facilities is "excellent with the resources that they have."

Weisz says that Justice officials downplayed the significance of the investigation and only asked to review some documents, but one ADJC employee close to the agency's legal department disagrees, saying, "They've been warned that this is a systemic investigation."

Russell Van Vleet, a national expert in juvenile justice reform, says a Justice investigation is always a "big deal" — a sign that there is likely a pattern of abuse at the facilities being examined.

The investigation is being conducted by the special litigation unit of the federal agency, which enforces the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). Dan Weiss, an attorney with the unit, first began making inquiries regarding Arizona's juvenile corrections system last summer, after a New Times special report revealed poor conditions at ADJC since 1998, when a federal court order monitoring the department was lifted ("Slammed," Amy Silverman, July 5, 2001).

The court order came as a result of a 1987 class-action lawsuit, Johnson v. Upchurch, which stemmed from a case in which a boy was held in solitary confinement for several weeks. Similar situations had arisen in the ensuing four years, New Times reported. The stories included evidence of physical, sexual and verbal abuse of juvenile detainees by staff, inadequate mental-health services and instances of kids being kept in detention far longer than their recommended times of stay. A later story in the series ("Learning Disorder," December 13, 2001) detailed inadequacies in ADJC's education system.

Apparent mistreatment continues at ADJC facilities, according to staff and internal documents. On April 11, a boy named Christopher Camacho died in an apparent suicide at Adobe Mountain School in north Phoenix ("Dying Young," April 18, 2002).

The department has no comment on the ongoing investigation, says ADJC spokesman Steve Meissner.

CRIPA allows the U.S. Attorney General to investigate and sue state-operated institutions such as ADJC when there is an alleged pattern or practice of violation of residents' federal rights. The Department of Justice has investigated juvenile corrections facilities in Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky and Puerto Rico, reporting incidents that have included inadequate mental-health care, staff-to-juvenile violence and excessive use of isolation — all similar to findings detailed in the "Slammed" series.

Weiss referred interview requests to the Justice Department's media office. Spokeswoman Kacey Stavropoulos confirmed that there is an open investigation at three ADJC facilities — Adobe Mountain and Black Canyon in Phoenix and Catalina in Tucson — but would not comment further.

The Justice investigation is the first reaction by government authorities to the current allegations of mistreatment at ADJC. Last July, more than 30 community leaders wrote to Governor Hull, requesting that she create a task force to look into ADJC.

Almost a year later, Jan Christian, the former executive director of the Governor's Select Commission and Task Force on Juvenile Corrections who headed the letter-writing group, has heard nothing from Hull. Weisz says that Gaspar has been told to arrange a meeting with Christian, but that he has been unable to contact her.

New Times reached Christian via e-mail. She responded almost immediately to the news of the federal investigation.

"I am delighted that the Department of Justice cares enough to investigate the conditions of confinement in Arizona and sad that, once again, those in charge of our institutions and our public policy didn't care enough to even respond to the findings, let alone investigate," she wrote.

Barbara Cerepanya, a Phoenix attorney who has represented kids held by ADJC — and one of those who signed the letter to Hull — says she has not heard from either ADJC or the Governor's Office.

Neither has Van Vleet, the national expert now based in Utah. He served as one of the monitors of the 1993 federal court order imposed on ADJC facilities as a result of Johnson v. Upchurch.

Van Vleet says the fact that the Justice Department is investigating is quite significant. "They wouldn't be investigating unless they thought there had been some substantial problems," he says.

He's surprised that Gaspar and Weisz are not expressing more concern. "You couldn't go to the American Correctional Association's annual conference and find one administrator who would say that having Justice investigate their facility wasn't a big deal . . . If you're under investigation, there's almost an assumption that there's something wrong."

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