Teenage Wasteland

It's up to Governor Janet Napolitano to make sure history doesn't repeat itself — that is, boldly reform juvenile corrections. Or at least make sure someone's watching

Before talk of real reform, Napolitano faces another decision. The task force monitoring the federal reforms, led by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Emmet Ronan, plans to strongly recommend that a permanent oversight committee be created by law, to ensure that ADJC does not backslide once the feds leave. Director Branham disagrees; he wants the power to appoint his own advisory committee, which would serve at his whim.

Haener says a decision has not been made.

"I don't think that absent some type of oversight that the system will continue in the direction that it's going," says Russ Van Vleet, one of the federal monitors. Based in Utah, he's considered one of the leading experts on juvenile justice in the country.

ADJC director Michael Branham
courtesy of ADJC
ADJC director Michael Branham
Christopher Camacho (right), in happier times.
courtesy of the Camacho family
Christopher Camacho (right), in happier times.

When it comes to Arizona, Van Vleet knows what he's talking about. This is not his first time here. In the mid-1990s, he served as the monitor in the state's first reform effort. Less than a decade later, the feds are back again.

Now it's up to Governor Napolitano, Van Vleet says, to make sure history does not repeat itself.

"When there's been successful reform [in other states], the governor has been a participant," he says. "I think she has to take an active role for it to happen. I don't know if that's on her agenda."

And now, a brief history lesson about Arizona's juvenile justice system.

Many juvenile delinquents never get past the county juvie hall stage, a few hours' detention, waiting for mom and dad to play fetch. But the judge has another choice, for repeat offenders: the state juvenile corrections system.

For decades, Arizona's juvenile institutions were administered under the auspices of the state Department of Corrections.

But in 1987, a boy named Matthew David Johnson was held in solitary confinement for more than a day at Catalina Mountain School in Tucson. Johnson, who was 17, was no hardened criminal. He was serving a year's sentence for jumping a ride on a train. His attorney argued that Johnson's civil rights were violated when he was isolated in poor conditions, and sued James Upchurch, then Catalina's superintendent.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened, investigated and subjected the state's entire juvenile corrections system to reform. The juveniles were taken out of the adult system, and a new state agency, the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, was formed. Court monitors were hired, and a task force was created to implement change.

Reforms took many years. Conditions greatly improved, although the facilities were still based on a model of incarceration, rather than rehabilitation.

In 1998, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bilby died, and the consent decree he had overseen was allowed to dissolve. The task force completed its work, and, without any continuing oversight committee, walked away. No permanent oversight was created.

A little more than two years later, New Times launched a nine-month investigation into conditions at the juvenile facilities, after receiving tips that the situation had deteriorated.

Indeed, it had. Solitary confinement was used more than ever, and kids were routinely locked in their cells as punishment; staffers were abusing kids, and kids were abusing staffers; educational and mental health services were subpar; and staffers said they were worried it was only a matter of time before someone died. At the same time, because of broader criminal justice system reforms, the most serious juvenile offenders were now being sent straight into the adult system. ADJC was filled, for the most part, with mentally ill kids who should not have been incarcerated in the first place.

The New Times story began like this:

The boys in the Nova cottage at Adobe Mountain School had been locked in their cells for six days. They had not been allowed to go to school or to the cafeteria or to chapel. No weekly phone calls. They had not showered, or washed their clothes. Some had been without a mattress on their metal bed frames for weeks. Leftover food and garbage sat on the floors of their cells; some boys banged on the doors, demanding to use the bathroom. A streak of dried urine ran under the door of one cell. Inside there was more urine and feces on the floor.

Terri Capozzi followed a trail of blood, seeping into the hallway, to the door of the cell belonging to a boy named Roberto. She looked through the window.

"The room was in complete disarray," Capozzi, the youth rights ombudsman for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, would later write in a memo obtained by New Times. "Looking down on the floor, I saw the bottom half of a pint milk container set carefully in the middle of the blood-spattered floor. It appeared that the container was filled to the brim with blood.

"As I stepped into the empty room, I noticed on the floor not far from the milk carton a wad of white gauze bound together. It was blood-soaked on one end. When I looked up at the walls, I realized that the container was a bucket, the gauze a rudimentary paintbrush and that [Roberto's] blood was the paint. The walls were filled with carefully drawn ornate designs, carefully rendered. I was awestruck by what occurred in this room."

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