Suicide at the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections

Current and former staff at Adobe Mountain School in North Phoenix tell New Times the May 25 death of a boy in custody was a suicide — breaking a seven-year, suicide-free streak for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

And a former ADJC inmate who roomed briefly with the boy who died says he's not at all surprised that his acquaintance took his own life, given both his behavior and the conditions in which he was placed.

Last week, an ADJC spokeswoman said the agency was not commenting on the case beyond what little was said the day after the boy's death, but she said that Director Michael Branham may release more information in the next few days.

Sometimes staff will place a troubled kid in a "suicide suit," shown here in a cell at Adobe Mountain School.
Jamie Peachey
Sometimes staff will place a troubled kid in a "suicide suit," shown here in a cell at Adobe Mountain School.

New Times is not releasing the name of the boy who died because ADJC has not confirmed whether his family has been informed. The 17-year-old boy who knew him is also not named in this story because he still is on parole and fears that giving his name would hurt his chances with work and school. Juvenile court records are not public.

According to a staff member in the Adobe Mountain housing unit Crossroads, the boy was found dead by the unit's morning staff with a plastic bag over his head and a blanket over that. The staff member and other Adobe Mountain personnel say the boy had been dead for quite some time, leading to questions about whether department policy requiring frequent welfare checks was followed.

The former roommate describes the deceased boy as overweight with "hair to his nose," lots of bumps and cuts on his arms, and a high-pitched voice. Staffers say the boy was moved to Crossroads, a unit for violent kids, from Triumph, the mental health unit, after he assaulted a teacher.

That could have led to his suicide, the former inmate says.

"I have a very strong reason why [he] had killed himself. Because he was moved to unit Crossroads. You can't put a kid who was in Triumph into an assault unit . . . There are kids who will bully you. They will beat you up," he says.

The former inmate, who was released from ADJC late last year, says it was clear that the boy was seriously mentally ill — something more aggressive kids tend to make fun of.

"You kind of look down upon Triumph because it's a mental health unit; you're like, these kids are retards."

The former inmate recalls that he first encountered the boy last July.

"When I first seen him, I seen him in the cafeteria," he says. "He would freak out and hit the floor and start screaming . . . The staff would restrain him, and he would say, 'Yeah, hurt me.' It was weird. I just thought he was kind of crazy."

Kids threaten suicide all the time, the former inmate says (he admits he did, too, so he could get a break from school), but he says he knew this kid meant it. The two were roommates for a week.

"Me and him used to talk; we would talk. He would tell me things about his mom and things when he was little. His dad lost his job, and then his mom didn't have a job, and his brother was the only one working. He would tell me, like, he couldn't deal with life."

The former inmate says cutting was common when he was at Adobe Mountain. Not at Durango, the county juvenile facility, where he'd been previously — there, you couldn't find anything to cut with. But kids at Adobe Mountain had easy access, he says, to staples and pieces of Plexiglas. The boy made bloody streaks on his arms with a paper clip, the former inmate says.

And one day, "I came back to my room — I was in the Boy Scouts in there; I had come back to the unit — my room was all trashed. Everything was thrown everywhere."

The boy was sitting with his head on his knees, crying. The former inmate called for staff, and the boy told them to "fuck off," and they took him to Separation, the solitary confinement unit.

After that, the boy was placed with a new roommate.

But the former inmate kept watching.

"There are a lot of blind spots in the units that the cameras don't catch," he says, so staff never saw the boy getting hit in the bathroom while he was trying to brush his teeth or getting "punked" for his snack.

"I could see how stressful he was already and how scared he was . . . All he wanted to do was get away from everything."

Anyone watching the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections knew it was only a matter of time before tragedy struck. Trouble is, no one's really watching.

The agency is under-funded and overwhelmed. Its own officials estimate that as many as 30 percent of its inmates are seriously mentally ill, and last year, New Times wrote extensively about suicidal behavior among the teenage population.

This is not a new challenge. In the past three decades, ADJC has twice been under federal scrutiny for human rights abuses. Most recently, in 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation under CRIPA, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, after a New Times investigative series and a string of suicides drew attention to an agency few in the state even know exists.

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David Altamirano
David Altamirano

ADJC is one of the most dangorus invirnments a youth can be put in i know because i was there my name is David Altamirano K#29428 and i expereanced some tragic fights, gang violince and jumps just to put in work. if anything keep kids at Durango.


i used to be an inmate there and one thing is for sure, they do NOT do welfare checks properly.... staff would walk by with a flash light and not look in the windows to see if the inmates were showing there heads or not.... there are several staff members there that are undercover, and by that i mean they act like staff when they need to but behind the scenes they let kids fight or beat up certain inmates that they dont like..... that place is sooo corrupt and against everything it was supposed to and intended to be....staff members would lie and do things to us that would mess with our heads to the point of blacking out anger...... no way is this place intended for mental heath kids or any other petty crime children offenders....any you can email me at m.larue89@yahoo.comreporter who would like to sit down and tr


In the article, it is written that "It's unknown whether the officer's death had anything to do with the boy's death."

It may never be known whether the officer's death had anything to do with the boy's death, but there is considerable scientific research showing that teens are "inspired" by suicides -- so-called copycat suicides or Werther effect.

Schools and parents need to be aware of this, and juvenile prisons with many already depressed teens in particular need to take this into account. There is no excuse given that this is a well-documented and statistically proven effect.


she may be a good reporter but you dont understand where these kids come of first hand. these are the kids that think they can get away with anything, and if they dont get want they want they do things in extreme measures. this kid needed help refused it. i know from experience from dealing with this kids. most staff at Adobe had enough patience with trying to help this kid. know what is actually going on with the place before judgeing the staff who indeed work very hard to control needy kids who are very hardhead. there are many types of youth there. not all are easy to talk to or control, some need more attention than others...


Amy, this is such a sad, sad story. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

DES/DCYF as well as Juvenile Correction (JC) has such issues with how they treat children. JC has improved over the years, as evident by the lack of suicides under their care. However, DES/DCYF has a long, long, long way to go and many times more suicides under their care than JC.

There are two programs a delinquent can be placed-- Detention Home or Canyon State Academy. CSA is usually for first offender, non-violent kids. Detention is for the hardcore kids, of course.

Sadly, the state has used both Detention and CSA has "holding" places for children that should be in foster care or in "therapeutic care", such as this boy you wrote about-- they should never be placed around "hard core" kids. It's a terrible thing for a child to be "punished" because there is no foster home for them to be place, don't you think?

Amy, here's an experiment to try-- and I could type and talk all day long about this but you have to see it for yourself to believe it.

A) Call DCYF and find out how many adoption homes are current looking for children. Just get the number. B) Look at or, see the Arizona section.

Doesn't add up, does it? There are over 2,000 adoptable kids at any given time, only 30-40 children are listed. There's usually 100-175 adoptive homes opened. MOST of those homes will "expire without placement". Also, note how long these kids remain up on those websites. You can LITERALLY watch these children "grow up" with new pictures placed on these adoption sights. Many will "age out", kicked to the curb by their foster parents at 18. The independent living program [ILP] has a 4% success rate, the rest of the kids [96%] live on the streets. Some will find their way back to the bad homes they were removed from, though.

Thanks for writing this story. I believe you're on to something bigger than you realize.

James Connolly
James Connolly

Wow, rumors and ineuendos are delivered in print as facts!!!

From what I understand- the investigation and review by the Agency and other Independent Agencies ( The Department of Public Safety, The Maricopa Medical Examiners Office) is not even complete yet. How can New Times in true "jounalistic professinalism" say with authority- what really happened? And yet-what is printed is taken as truth. Pretty sad.

Would not one think that once the "official" report is released to them (New Times)under the "Public Information" Law, allow them to disect and further drill down into the truths and/or conflicts go along way to validating concerns and/or issues? Sounds like true Jounalism to me-does it not to you-unless one wants to believe in what your beliefs already and/or preconceived beliefs are?

Throuhout Mr. Branham's tenure-this Agency has been under more justified scrutiny-then any organization that I am aware of. And thanks to the incredible AGENCY work force and dedication by them- they (ADJC) has passed the scrutiny everytime with HIGH MARKS-this due to the dedication of all staff-from line level to the high level.

What happened-reference the most recent event-will be throughoughly investigated and the appropriate actions will be taken. (this is evidenced by the past seven years of Michael Branham's tenure). I can say this with knowlege of the recent past-to future make sure that this incident does not occur again.

NEW TIMES-AMY SILVERMAN-be a true Journalist and wait till you get the total facts. You will-with that information be able to appropriately question practices and processes.

I am very proud of the professionals at ADJC- who,as a majority, are committed to protecting youth and making them successfull. A Committed Juvenile Justice Supporter


My impression is that Amy Silverman was mainly critical of sending mentally ill kids into juvenile prisons that are not prepared for, and not intended to be able to deal with, such mentally ill children. I did not see any rumors or innuendos in her article, and she does not seem to question the commitment of the staff -- she questions whether it is really realistic to expect them to be able to deal with kids who have extremely serious mental health problems.

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