Teen Inmate Commits Suicide After AZ Department of Corrections Was Warned of Her Mental-Health Problems

New evidence shows that a few weeks before a teenager held in solitary confinement at Perryville Prison died in what appears to be an act of suicide, the Arizona Department of Corrections had been specifically warned about her deteriorating mental health and notified that the conditions in which she was being kept likely violated state policy.

Prison staff found Mariam Abdullah, who was serving a three-year sentence for armed robbery, in her cell with a bedsheet wrapped around her neck on the evening of July 19. Unresponsive but still alive, she was taken to a nearby hospital.

She died the following afternoon, less than six weeks after her 18th birthday.

The Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to report the official cause of death, but ADC spokesman Andrew Wilder says evidence points to "an apparent act of self-harm." 

Abdullah died shortly after the nonprofit advocacy group Prison Law Office sent a letter about her situation to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which represents the ADC in court.

"[Abdullah] is not receiving the required programming, unstructured out-of-cell time and mental health services required for adult SMI prisoners housed in max custody," states the June 7 letter signed by Prison Law Office attorney Corene Kendrick. "She reports submitting multiple [health needs request forms] asking to speak to mental health staff, and making verbal requests to staff, but the only contacts she is receiving are quick cell-front checks. During our interview, she reported that she experiences auditory and visual hallucinations."

According to Kendrick's letter, Abdullah had been placed on suicide watch in the past, periods during which she described "conditions of great deprivation." 

Kendrick's letter makes multiple references to Parsons v. Ryan, a 2012 class-action lawsuit against the ADC in which the Prison Law Office and the American Civil Liberties Union were co-plaintiffs. As part of the settlement in that case, the ADC agreed to abide by a series of new performance standards and allow Prison Law Office staff members to tour state prisons on a regular basis. Kendrick met and interviewed Abdullah during one of those visits, on May 24.

At the time, Abdullah told Kendrick she had been held in solitary confinement since March 10 for threatening to beat up another girl in the prison.

"Based on what she told me, she wasn't getting out of her cell to exercise, wasn't getting programming and mental-health services,” Kendrick tells New Times. "She wasn't allowed to have books or a TV or a radio, and she wasn't getting out for education."

Additionally, Kendrick alleges in her letter of June 7, Abdullah hadn't been allowed to see her mother since March and the sink in her cell wasn't working properly.

"She just seemed very sad and very isolated [and] was clearly traumatized when I talked to her," Kendrick elaborates. "She's a child, and she was being held in isolation conditions worse than what the adults were being held in — not that it's okay for anyone to be held in isolation, but all of the best practices say to stop using isolation on children."

Kendrick points out that the alleged deprivations not only violate the Parsons decision, they also run afoul of federal laws concerning incarcerated juveniles. (Abdullah had not yet turned 18 at the time of Kendrick's visit.)

Not long after Kendrick's visit, Abdullah turned 18 and was moved to the adult maximum-custody unit.

"We never received a response or an update," Kendrick says.

The ADC declined to comment about whether it took any action with respect to Kendrick's letter.

Peggy Plews of the advocacy group Arizona Prison Watch views Abdullah's suicide as the result of a pattern of mistreatment of young, vulnerable inmates with mental-health and behavioral problems.

Court documents describe Abdullah as a transient juvenile runaway who took methamphetamine and was affiliated with two criminal street gangs. She was arrested in June 2014 after agreeing her help her boyfriend commit robbery. (Her job was to distract the victim, a man she knew had a crush on her, in a parking lot, while her boyfriend came up from behind with a handgun and demanded money. A struggle for the gun ensued and Abdullah and her boyfriend eventually fled the scene with $60 they used to buy meth.)

Plews, on the other hand, describes the girl as an impressionable teenager who fell in with a bad crowd and was a victim of what she calls the "CPS-to-prison pipeline."

New Times has not been able to confirm that Abdullah was under the care of the Arizona Department of Child Safety (formerly Child Protective Services). Abdullah's mother declined an interview request, and DCS spokesman Doug Nick would not comment, citing confidentiality concerns.

Plews spoke frequently with Abdullah and wrote on Facebook that "During her prosecution at age 16, Mariam was kept primarily in solitary confinement in Estrella Jail in Phoenix, where young teenage girls facing prosecution as adults — most of whom are also mentally ill — are held for up to several years, pending trial as adults."

While in jail, Abdullah became friends with Jessica Burlew, a severely mentally ill teen who had been charged as an adult for accidentally strangling an older man during an apparent sex act in 2014. (Burlew, too, was 16 at the time.) Burlew was reportedly denied certain prescription medications and then frequently held in isolation on suicide watch after she acted out or attempted to kill herself. Abdullah used to call Burlew’s mother, Tracy Woodside, with updates about Burlew during those times.

After a year in jail, Abdullah agreed to plead guilty to one felony count of armed robbery and one felony count of unlawful use of means of transportation, in exchange for three years in prison with credit for time served.

Abdullah often found herself isolated and in solitary confinement during her time at Perryville, just as she had in Estrella.

"Even holding aside requirements of our [Parsons] stipulations, there's been so much research about how the use of solitary confinement and isolation is so crippling, especially for children," Kendrick says. "About the worst thing you can do for a teenager is to isolate her and keep her away from her peers."

A report by the ACLU notes that according to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 60 percent of young people who committed suicide had a history of being held in isolation.

"I'd like people to know a little about the kind of kid she was," Plews says of Abdullah. "She was no angel — she's the first to admit that. [But] she was a sweet kid, wanted to be a firefighter and save other people someday.

"Instead, we just threw her away. We all broke that kid long before she killed herself."

Read the letter Corene Kendrick sent the Arizona Attorney General's Office regarding Mariam Abdullah:

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser

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