DIE LIKE A MAN
Henry Cruz was feeling feisty that morning when he woke up in the barbed-wired, concrete-block cage where kids who break the law are kept.
That wasn't usual. Cruz, better known as Frosty to his homies and his weary keepers, stood 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed about 112 pounds. But after spending most of the previous four years locked up in places like Adobe Mountain School in north Phoenix, the little guy from an impoverished, crisis-ridden Guadalupe family was an expert at survival, intimidation and knowing the value of a reputation. On the outside, he had a long record of stealing bikes, sniffing paint and pulling penny-ante burglaries. On the inside, he was admired for his artwork, respected for his courage and his loyalty and ever so slightly feared for his wild unpredictability. A Hispanic kid from the wrong side of town, he was tough. But like many of the black, Hispanic and Indian kids who occupy most of the locked rooms in the state's juvenile facilities, he was also wounded and abandoned.
Frosty scrambled out of his bolted-down, steel-frame bed, checked his slicked-back hair, admired the teardrop tattoo he'd pricked into his face just under his eye with a needle and pencil lead, and sallied forth jauntily to meet the world.
On the couch in his cottage's rec room at Adobe, he discovered the four biggest kids in the unit staring bleary-eyed at the television set. Three of the four were black or Hispanic, like nearly two-thirds of the kids in the state's juvenile facilities. Grinning impishly, Frosty walked up to the first hulking delinquent on the sofa--a kid known for his prowess in a knife fight.
"Fuck you," Frosty shouted, pointing his finger at the much-larger kid.
The other boy stared at Frosty, amazed at his apparent death wish.
Frosty moved down the line to the next kid. "Fuck you," Frosty repeated.
"Fuck you, too," said the second kid, not taking his eyes off the television set.
Frosty moved on. "Fuck you," he said.
"Frosty, you're an asshole," said the third boy, who was feared throughout the institution as a gang enforcer.
The fourth boy on the couch was the biggest, baddest kid in the unit, with his own reputation for sullen unpredictability. He eyed Frosty balefully, mad-dogging him an unmistakable warning. Frosty took up his position in front of the much-larger kid, a heavily muscled 230-pounder who spent most of his free time in the weight room or hanging out with the other members of his gang.
"Fuck you," Frosty said without hesitation. The other boy stood and casually punched Frosty in the face.
Frosty went down, but bounced back to his feet as though he were spring-loaded.
"Fuck you," he said again.
Another punch and Frosty was on the floor again.
He climbed once more to his feet, wiping the blood from his nose.
"Fuck you," he said cheerfully.
Another blow, and Frosty was on the floor a third time. The bigger boy turned and walked away, shamed by the unevenness of the battle. Frosty jumped him from behind as the boy emerged into the yard, pounding him with a stick Frosty had picked up somewhere.
The bigger boy covered his head with his arms. "Come on, Frosty. Chill," he yelled.
Then the bigger kid walked away again. This time Frosty let him go, standing unsteadily. The incident put the final touch on Frosty's reputation in the tough, closed, violent juvenile justice system. The State of Arizona spends about $28,000 annually to lock up kids, like Frosty, who can't live by the rules. Most of them have been beaten, abused, abandoned and neglected. Most are all but illiterate and struggle with drug addictions and emotional problems in a world of startling violence, indifference and injustice.
Like Frosty, they're mostly minority kids, who are three to six times as likely to be locked up for their crimes than are Anglos. Most, like Frosty, find that living in lockup requires mastering a tough new set of rules.
The story spread how the half-pint Frosty, already famous for his intricate artwork, beat up the toughest kid at Adobe. During nearly four years in locked institutions, Frosty had learned that the only way a little Hispanic kid can survive is by supporting gang members and cultivating a reputation for wild courage.
Sometimes that meant participating in the racial, gang-linked brawls that punctuate life in those institutions--even though Frosty normally got along well with both blacks and Anglos. Sometimes it meant taking a beating in a hopeless fight without offering or asking for quarter. Sometimes it meant taking the rap for something he hadn't done in order to protect his homies. These were hard lessons, and he learned them well. But they only got him so far in a system in which lives are reduced to statistics, code numbers and sometimes skin color. Eventually, Frosty ran up against the inexorable rules of the system itself, which dispenses justice in lopsided ways. Earlier this year, Frosty, then 16, got into a fight while on probation. Once again he was in a hassle with a man twice his size. This time both were high on paint fumes, arguing about something Frosty later couldn't remember. One thing led to another, and Frosty threw a rock that put a gash in the man's forehead. Frosty ran. Someone called the police. The police picked him up later. It wasn't hard. He'd gone home.
Frosty was one of ten kids born to a loving but uneducated woman struggling with a drinking problem and a man who spent his life in and out of prison. Several of Frosty's brothers have, at one time or another, been in prison, mostly on theft or drug charges.
This time Frosty was charged with his first violent crime, after five juvenile court "adjudications" for offenses ranging from theft to attempted arson.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office asked that Frosty be transferred to adult court, and the juvenile court agreed. Frosty was led away in manacles. He was later sentenced to four years in state prison.
"The judge was mistaken in transferring Frosty," says the Reverend David Myers, a lawyer and Jesuit priest in Guadalupe who had known Frosty for years. Nine hours after Frosty was sentenced to prison, a guard found him hanging from a light fixture in his cell, and proved Myers right. The unheralded death of a tough little guy who had spent a quarter of his short life in lockup would be just another grim, small-print tragedy but for one thing.
If he'd been Anglo, Frosty might still be alive.
If he'd been Anglo, he might not have been sent to Adobe again and again, and instead to a community-based treatment program in which someone might have taught him to read. And if he'd been Anglo, he might not have been transferred to the adult prison for getting into a fight.
If he'd been Anglo.
@body:Arizona's juvenile justice system is blatantly racist in its handling of troubled kids. It's not just the oft-repeated statistic that minority kids are three to six times as likely to be arrested as Anglo kids. Once in the system, minority kids receive dramatically fewer services than Anglo kids accused of the same crimes.
Both Anglo and minority kids who run afoul of the law have generally been abused, abandoned or neglected. They generally suffer from overwhelming educational, emotional and psychological problems. But the Anglo kids are two or three times as likely to receive hospitalization, counseling, family therapy or placement in community treatment facilities.
Minority kids, on the other hand, are two or three times as likely to be locked up in the most secure, least therapeutic facilities or to be transferred to adult court--like Frosty was. "It's a racist system, but that's like saying it doesn't rain much in Arizona," says Peg Bortner, professor of juvenile justice at Arizona State University. Bortner has been studying transfers of juveniles to adult courts; her study will be released in September. "It's a racist society in which entire institutions are structured in such a way that they have racist effects--even when those structures are intended to be benevolent."
The following statistics come from the Arizona Department of Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation, from Bortner's report and from studies prepared for the Governor's Task Force on Juvenile Corrections:
Black teens in Arizona are six times as likely to be imprisoned as are Anglos. The commitment rate for black youths increased 67 percent between 1985 and 1989.
Minority kids receive longer, harsher sentences in the juvenile justice system. Minority youths are also three times as likely to be transferred to the adult system as are Anglos. Anglos represent only about 37 percent of the youths in the juvenile justice system, but about 70 percent of those in community-based treatment facilities. Anglo kids are much more likely to have received counseling and other services. The overwhelming majority of the people who run community-based treatment programs are Anglo, which makes adjustment difficult for minority kids.
The system becomes more unequal at each link in the chain. In Maricopa County, Anglos account for 70 percent of the teenage population, 55 percent of the juvenile arrests and 45 percent of those transferred to adult court. Blacks compose 4 percent of the teenage population, 12 percent of the arrests and 25 percent of the youths transferred to the adult system. Hispanics account for 19 percent of the teenage population, 36 percent of the arrests and 28 percent of the youths transferred to the adult courts.
Arizona ranks sixth nationally in the rate at which it locks up its teenagers, but 48th in its per capita spending on the juvenile justice system. The Governor's Task Force has repeatedly documented and decried the de facto racism of the system, calling for development of treatment programs for minority youths, an increase in the number of minorities running the system and a redress of glaring racial inequities that grow worse from year to year.
"If someone is involved in violent and aggressive behavior, then they should be more likely to be in therapeutic services," says Michael Bronson, chief of childcare for the Department of Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation and one of the few high-ranking blacks in the system. "But minorities are more likely to get no services at all."
Bias creeps in everywhere, says Kelly Spencer, chief of case management for the Department of Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation. "Most of the gatekeepers look a lot like me," Spencer points out, referring to the fact that he is Anglo. "We're the police who make the arrests, the prosecutors who review the case, the probation officer who recommends placement, the judge who pronounces sentence and the treatment providers themselves. So it's not a revelation that the system is racist. "And the kids get that message all along the way. Their perception is that they've failed. And pretty soon, they just give up on themselves."
The implicit racism of the system is evident to John Arredondo, the head of the Department of Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation. He was hired last year to implement reforms in the newly created department. The department was detached from the adult prison system in 1990 as a result of a 1986 lawsuit claiming that harsh disciplinary measures and the lack of effective treatment violated the civil rights of youths in custody.
"Everyone knows there's overincarceration of minorities. We've got the figures going back to 1980," Arredondo says. "But here it is in 1992, and it's only gotten worse. We have to stop spending all our time gathering statistics and do something."
But the same officials who acknowledge the exhaustively documented bias in the system also agree that in the face of ongoing budget problems, outmoded facilities and a lack of community treatment programs, it will take years to make significant changes.
In the meantime, kids like Henry Cruz will just have to take their chances in a system beset by racial inequities that no one seems willing, or able, to fix.
@body:Frosty's life was never easy.
His father was in and out of prison on drug charges, as were several of his older brothers. His mother, Mercy Cruz, has struggled most of her life with a drinking problem.
Frosty grew like some stunted weed pushing through the cracks of an abandoned sidewalk. His presentencing report says he came from a "dysfunctional" family. He completed the fourth grade at Kyrene Elementary School, but could neither read nor write. The report indicates that for several years he lived mostly on the streets, raised in effect by members of the gang to which he belonged. He also started sniffing paint in 1988, and dabbled with marijuana, alcohol and cocaine. "Henry's problem was that he started getting in trouble hanging around with bad company," his mother says. "He would take the blame for it all the time. He was the type that would not snitch or tell on somebody. He would always take the blame to protect his friends."
His first arrest came at the age of 11.
His second came a year later, that time for theft.
In 1988 Frosty was back in court for attempted arson.
He returned later in 1988 for theft, and again in 1989.
All told, Frosty accumulated 23 referrals to various judges. He was placed in mostly Anglo residential treatment programs five times, but he stayed for a total of just 43 days. He felt like a fish out of water in programs so far from his neighborhood, so he'd bolt and return to Guadalupe. Frosty was never very hard to find. He hung out with his homies, or at home, where his mother was making steady progress in pulling her tattered life back together. "The probation officer wasn't willing to give him a chance," says Mercy. "He just wanted to put Henry away because we lived in a small town, a poor town. He just blamed the family the whole way. "And these places they sent him, they just treated him like an animal. They were always putting him down, just because of the town he was raised in." Frosty spent one year living with his brother's family in Guadalupe. He stayed out of trouble for that whole year. He loved playing with his nieces and nephews, friends say. The children often nagged him to read them bedtime stories. He would pick up the book and improvise wildly. Invariably, his fairy tales ended badly--the wolf won. The kids always protested. His brother thought he was just teasing them. It was only later that he realized Frosty was trying to cover for his inability to read.
Frosty was an institutional kid after he turned 12. On the inside, he depended on the protection of other Hispanic kids, mostly members of street gangs. He took the blame when it was necessary to protect his homies. He tattooed himself to proclaim his alliances. He defied bigger kids and staff members alike, desperate to win the respect he craved and the reputation he needed as protection from victimization. He was constantly in trouble with staff, as his effort to build a reputation overlapped with his impulsiveness, frustration and emotional scars.
Shortly before his transfer to adult court, however, Frosty confessed his illiteracy and asked for help. Colleen Becker, a high school teacher interning at Adobe while she worked on her degree in social work, tutored him an hour a day. In two months, he advanced from a first- to nearly a fourth-grade reading level.
"If you start out small, you're way behind," says Becker. "So he got a mouth on him. The attitude is, 'If I'm going to get beat up, anyway, then I'm going to throw the first punch.'"
But Frosty's heart wasn't really in being tough.
Until that last fight, he was never charged with a violent offense.
And he never really bought into the racial fights and hatreds that dominate at places like Adobe. Frosty's heart was in his art--intricate drawings of roses, cars, women and gangsters in bandannas with teardrops etched into their cheeks. He drew constantly, mostly custom orders for other kids. He even drew pictures of members of rival gangs, complete with their gang symbols. Sometimes members of his gang gave him hell for it. But he kept at it, unable to refuse anyone who wanted a picture. He cranked out one after another on scraps of cardboard or on the backs of manila envelopes rescued from the trash can.
After Becker found out about Frosty's drawings, she bought him a cheap black pen with permanent ink. It became his favorite possession. He raved about it for days. Frosty had been drawing for years, but he'd never before owned a pen that wouldn't smudge. Becker also encouraged him to prepare drawings for submission to lowrider magazines, which in his dreary world seemed like a dazzling peak of ambition. She also convinced the owner of a print shop to teach Frosty how to use an airbrush once he was released.
Frosty and Becker became friends. She spent an hour or two with him every day. "He'd always had behavior problems in classes," she says. "But it turns out it was because he couldn't do the work. No one ever said, 'Oh, you can't read.' When I worked with him, he was a good student. Very self-motivated. He never talked back. Never swore. He finally believed that someone actually wanted to help him."
@body:But it was too late.
By the time Frosty began to change, he had exhausted the limited tolerance of the system.
The fight on a bleak Guadalupe street corner was the final straw.
Fittingly enough, the fight was with the 27-year-old Guadalupe man who first got Frosty and a lot of other local kids into paint-sniffing, according to Frosty's mother. Paint-sniffing is a particularly vicious form of drug addiction, since it inflicts brain damage, poisons the system and can trigger violent and unpredictable behavioral changes. It is, however, cheap. Frosty and the man had been getting high together for years. Frosty had gone a little nuts during one session several years earlier. Police were called to pick him up from in front of the other man's house, where he was running up and down the street, banging his head against mailboxes, Mercy says.
"I called the police on that man three different times. I told them what he was doing to kids," Mercy says.
Shortly before the fateful fight, Frosty had lent the older man his bike. The older man sold it, Mercy says.
They were both high on booze and paint fumes that night. An argument about the bike escalated. Frosty grabbed a brick and threw it at the man, who was nearly twice his size. Frosty inflicted a wound that required several stitches.
Then he ran.
The police report described the blow as "unprovoked." Frosty himself later told officers he couldn't remember what happened. Mercy pieced the story together from witnesses. She asked those witnesses to give their accounts to police, but none wanted to get involved. Juvenile court sent him back to Adobe. He faced the prospect of being transferred to the adult system for the first time.
One night shortly before the transfer hearing, two friends told Frosty they were going to make a break. Initially, he refused to join them. He shut himself in his room.
As he was sitting there, considering the possibilities, something snapped. He ran from the cottage in thongs and joined the other two, who had somehow obtained wire cutters. They cut through the Cyclone fencing. Frosty sprinted away on foot. The other two stole a car from the parking lot. Police caught Frosty later that night, still in thongs and prison garb.
"I got there on my next visit to do my reading with him," says Becker. "He was in the isolation cell. I just sat down and shrugged my shoulders. But you know, nothing makes more sense in the world than for a kid scared to death of prison to make a run for it." Something Frosty said that night now haunts her. "We wound up talking for four or five hours. He told me then he'd tried to kill himself two or three times before. Once with a razor blade. And once he tried to hang himself in isolation. But a guard came by and found him."
Several days later, after a brief hearing, Maricopa County Juvenile Court Judge Mark Armstrong transferred Frosty to adult court. Judge Armstrong declined comment on the case, and the court documents are confidential.
Once the case had been transferred, Frosty's public defender told him that he could get ten years of "hard" time in prison if he gambled on a trial and lost. A guilty plea, on the other hand, would bring either probation or four years of "soft" time with possible release in two. Frosty took the deal, praying for probation.
Frosty pleaded guilty on the advice of his public defender. He signed the papers, not knowing his mother had talked to witnesses who might be able to support a claim of self-defense.
"I was very upset when I found out about it," says his mother. "It seemed like they just wanted to tell him anything to get him out of the way."
But Frosty decided to gamble on the mercy of the court.
Not without doubts.
The probation department's presentencing report wasn't good news, based on the probation officer's brief conversation with Frosty and his mother and the pile of paperwork accumulated in Frosty's long, agonizing passage through the system. His probation officer described him as an "unfortunate and unworkable" juvenile who had been exposed to a full range of treatment but remained "violent and impulsive."
The psychological evaluation indicated that he displayed little self-control and a fierce resistance to authority. When not directly supervised, he was likely to be "compulsive, changeable and unaware of his assaultive behavior."
"The combination of his impulsive behavior and violent effects of inhaling paint make the defendant a potentially dangerous young man. He is functionally illiterate, has extremely limited prospects for employment and a dysfunctional family to which he must look for support. Probation cannot provide any new services for treatment to make the defendant less of a safety risk," the report concluded.
Back at Adobe, Frosty grew increasingly desperate. "He was a little guy who'd spent his life in a system that hadn't rendered any effective help," says the Reverend Myers, the Guadalupe priest who knows Frosty's family. "He knew he was just dead meat in the adult system."
"I gotta get probation," Frosty repeated, knowing all too well what can happen to a little guy in prison. @rule:
@body:While awaiting sentencing, Frosty fell into a conversation through the ventilation ducts with two other youths in the juvenile holding cells of the Madison Street Jail. They talked about one inmate who'd managed to cut open his own throat and another who had hanged himself from a light fixture. One of the other inmates said they should make a suicide pact.
Their cell doors burst open. Guards grabbed them and handcuffed them by the ankles and wrists to their steel-frame beds. "Four-pointing" is the standard penalty for anyone who so much as mentions committing suicide. Frosty lay staring at the ceiling while his hands slowly turned blue.
"I came to visit the next day, and found out he was in isolation," says Becker. "The guard was saying, 'That kid's trouble. First he stops up the drain and floods his room, then he paints a mural on his wall of a naked woman, now he's four-pointed for suicide.' They considered being suicidal a discipline problem."
Frosty didn't sleep at all the night before his sentencing.
His case had been assigned to Superior Court Judge Cheryl Hendrix, who had been sanctioned by the Arizona Supreme Court in 1985 for granting her court clerk special jail visitations with a convicted murderer, to whom she had granted special telephone privileges. Judge Hendrix also achieved notoriety for her comments to a man charged with stealing a can of beans. As she sentenced the man to prison, the judge handed him a can of beans and said, "I wanted to make sure you didn't get shortchanged . . . I hope you enjoy them, sir," according to news accounts. Later Hendrix told her court stenographer to strike her remarks from the official transcript.
Frosty sat in the front row of her court, dazed from anxiety and fatigue. He half-rose when Becker and his mother entered the courtroom. Judge Hendrix ordered him removed, lest he cause a scene.
Becker pleaded for mercy on his behalf. The prosecuting attorney had been assigned to the case at the last minute. He confessed that he hadn't read the presentencing report, but said the County Attorney's Office would accept probation with a "significant" amount of time in jail--not in prison.
Judge Hendrix wasn't impressed with his plea for mercy.
"That's very charitable of you," she said to the prosecutor, "but maybe next time you should read the presentence report."
Judge Hendrix asked Frosty if he had anything to say.
"No, Ma'am," he murmured.
"Mr. Cruz, you are a very sad case and my heart goes out to you," the judge said. "It appears you haven't had much of a life. You haven't had very many good role models, but a lot of the state's resources have been available to you through the juvenile justice system, and they have a lot more resources for helping you than the adult criminal justice system.
"It seems a shame to send a person of your young and tender years to the Department of Corrections, but I cannot, in good conscience, place you on probation.
"Mr. Cruz, you can do anything you want to do in this life and be successful or you can continue being a criminal; the choice is yours. But Mr. Cruz, no one is going to like you unless you like yourself first. Please work on that. We all know there is a good person inside who is trying to get out. Work on that, please."
With that Judge Hendrix pronounced what turned out to be a death sentence.
She ignored the pleas for either jail time or probation lodged by Becker and Frosty's family and agreed to by the prosecutor. Instead, she accepted the recommendation of the probation officer.
Judge Cheryl Hendrix sentenced Henry Cruz to four years in prison. Later she told New Times that she had considered sentencing Henry to a short "shock incarceration" followed by intensive parole.
But Henry was too young for that program. The guards led Frosty away without letting him talk to his family.
"It doesn't do any good to have second thoughts," Judge Hendrix said later. "What can you say except it's an exceedingly bad and unfortunate situation? I can't turn back the clock."
@body:Shortly after his return to the Madison Street Jail, Frosty told a guard he was afraid he might do something crazy, according to the jail's report of the incident.
The guard asked if he could wait until after dinner to talk to a nurse from the clinic.
Sure, Frosty said. After dinner the guard called the nurse and left a message.
After a while, the guard called again.
Finally, Frosty was escorted to the medical unit.
He was returned to his cell within 20 minutes.
The nurse later told police that Frosty told her he wouldn't hurt himself. She said he seemed cheerful when he left. She also said they talked for 45 minutes, which contradicts the jail log. Maybe Frosty had decided he was just a little Hispanic kid who was better off dead.
Or maybe he had decided he needed to do something dramatic to get the attention of his keepers so he could go to the hospital instead of to prison.
An inmate in a nearby cell said that Frosty said he was going to hang himself just before the guard returned for the next bed check. The other inmate tried to reason with him, but Frosty wouldn't answer. The guard found Frosty hanging, by a strip of torn bedding, from the light fixture at 9:13 p.m. on April 7, 1992. That was just an hour after the nurse had noted that he seemed cheerful.
And it was just nine hours after Judge Hendrix sentenced him to prison, following an 18-minute hearing.
Frosty's back was to the cell door. He looked like he was kneeling. Either he'd had the determination to hang himself by holding his legs off the ground until he suffocated or he'd miscalculated the time of the guard's arrival, passed out for lack of air and hanged himself when he slumped down unconscious.
"I don't even know if he really wanted to die," says Becker. "What he was doing was trying to get out of going to prison. I think he wanted someone to stop him. I think he had a plan, and it just backfired."
It seemed everyone who knew him came to the funeral, except one of his brothers, who was in prison. He was allowed to view Frosty's body in the mortuary the day before the service, as long as no other family members were in sight.
On the day of the funeral, the coffin was opened three different times. Everyone filed by each time, as though trying to convince themselves it was really Frosty in there, so peaceful and still.
His homies put tokens on his chest.
His mother wept inconsolably.
A veteran probation officer stood awkwardly in the front row.
A woman from the prison played in the somber band.
Many people wore tee shirts bearing his picture and the words, "In Loving Memory of Frosty: Henry Cruz."
Frosty lay in his coffin, perfect and tiny in death. His mother stroked his cold cheek. His sisters smoothed his dark hair. His friends talked about the day Frosty beat up the biggest kid at Adobe.
But oddly enough, Frosty didn't look like a gangster who'd spent his best years in lockup.
Lying there in his coffin, dwarfed by death, Henry Cruz looked like a sleeping child.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.