The Kids Are Not Alright
Editor's note: The names of juveniles throughout these stories have been changed to protect their privacy. Although their criminal case files are public record, their corrections files are not.
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.
More stories in the Slammed special report.
"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."
Capozzi was told the mess had been made in the past 30 minutes, but her associate, Adobe Mountain youth rights specialist Brenda Lewis, confirmed it had been there for at least several hours. Roberto, a 15-year-old serving time for burglary, had been in and out of the infirmary for days, treated for self-inflicted cuts.
The Nova boys were locked down because they'd been misbehaving, and were supposed to be participating in a marathon group-counseling session. But just one brief session had been held the previous night, they told Lewis, when she visited them early on the afternoon of Day Six.
As Capozzi and Lewis left the cottage, the boys were allowed to go to dinner in the cafeteria for the first time in almost a week. Capozzi was speaking with Roberto -- he had never cut himself before coming to Adobe, she would write, but now was "clearly mentally compromised" and suicidal -- when Joe Taylor, the school's superintendent, approached. He called her into his office and ordered her off school property, angry that she'd crossed him by speaking with kids without his permission, undermining him and his staff.
Capozzi was furious.
"I am anxiously awaiting your response to this serious personnel and management issue," Capozzi concluded in her May 19, 1999, memo to ADJC director David Gaspar and legal services director Lou Goodman.
The response: Taylor has since been promoted to ADJC assistant director, in charge of the agency's Safe Schools program.
As for Roberto, he was released from Adobe but returned in November, after he ran away from a residential treatment center. And he's still cutting himself up.
The story of Roberto and what happened in the Nova cottage may be particularly chilling, but it is not the only example of abuse of children in the custody of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. Contrary to the agency's name, policymakers long ago gave ADJC the mandate to rehabilitate troubled kids, not punish them -- and certainly not abuse them.
And yet reports of mistreatment -- including verbal and sexual abuse, inappropriate use of restraints and solitary confinement, and violence against both juveniles and staff -- are common at the state's facilities, which typically house just under 1,000 Arizona youths at a time.
New Times has spent more than nine months investigating conditions within ADJC. Among the findings:
ADJC no longer follows the practices put into place by a federal court order in 1993 that were designed to ensure that proper conditions are maintained for youth in detention. ADJC violates the intent of the now-expired court order by:
Routinely putting children in solitary confinement in specialized "separation units" for days or weeks, sometimes even months, without adequate education or other services.
Providing substandard mental health services. Undertrained staff counsel children, and there are waiting lists for beds in mental health cottages.
Failing to provide enough staff. The staff-to-youth ratio should be at least one staff member for every eight youths.
In addition, ADJC violates its own internal policies and goes against acceptable national practices in the following areas:
Staff members often use violence to control kids when it is not necessary. Sometimes staffers are disciplined, sometimes not.
Staff members have sexual relations with kids.
Kids are not adequately supervised.
Kids are not the only ones in danger. Corrections officers and teachers are put at risk due to staffing shortages and because department policies are not followed.
Because ADJC's youth rights division is run internally, it is impossible for juveniles to have adequate due process. The department's grievance policy is not utilized properly. Kids' complaints are sometimes not followed up on, and kids report they fear reprisals if they file grievances.
Contrary to recommendations by national experts, ADJC keeps kids detained long past their sentences, and does not always adequately prepare them to be released.
In many cases, children detained in Arizona are treated more harshly than their adult counterparts in the state. Kids serve time for petty offenses, receive longer sentences and are denied luxuries -- like radios and televisions in their cells -- that adult prisoners take for granted.
In preparing this story, New Times reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents released under the state's public records law -- including internal-affairs reports, incident reports, grievances, lawsuits, claims and statistics on offenses, use of force, exclusion and isolation. In addition, New Times obtained hundreds of pages of confidential internal memos, reports and juvenile case histories. Current ADJC employees at many levels -- from entry-level youth corrections officers to highly trained counselors to administrators and teachers -- were interviewed. All requested that their names not be used, for fear they would be fired.
ADJC turned down requests by the paper to interview Joe Taylor, Terri Capozzi and all other ADJC employees, allowing only director Gaspar and Public Information Officer Steve Meissner to speak for the agency. Agency officials also refused requests for interviews with juveniles currently detained by ADJC. Gaspar and Meissner declined to speak about individual juvenile cases, even though New Times is not using kids' names; they would not talk about personnel matters, either.
They refused to comment on Roberto and the lockdown at Nova cottage.
The same month of the Nova lockdown, in a different cottage at Adobe, staff showed kids a movie called "Blood In/Blood Out: Bound By Honor." The film is a violent, sexually explicit depiction of gang life on the streets -- and in the prisons -- of California. Not only does "Blood In/Blood Out" glamorize a life of crime, it's instructional: In many scenes, characters are shown making and using weapons in prison.
After the movie was shown, "unit youth broke up into two gangs modeled after those aggrandized in the movie. The youth began accruing weapons rapidly," ombudsman Terri Capozzi wrote in a complaint to ADJC officials.
Metal shanks and rods wrapped with masking tape were found in at least two youths' cells. They were put in solitary confinement, where they were told to "write a song or poem on what it means to be a positive youth."
It sounds as though ADJC is in need of reform. But the tragedy is that the practices uncovered by New Times have all taken place since 1998, after the system had already undergone substantial transformation ordered by the federal court. At the time, the agency was essentially pronounced cured, and, in fact, declared a national model.
A 1987 class-action lawsuit against ADJC resulted in the court order that dictated standards for everything from education to counseling to solitary confinement. The order expired in 1998, but while the practices were to be kept in place, scrutiny vanished. Even the department's most vociferous watchdogs admit they've ignored ADJC since.
"Something very fundamental will have to happen here," says Jan Christian, who served as executive director of the Governor's Task Force on Juvenile Corrections during the creation and implementation of the federal court order.
Christian, along with other local and national experts, reviewed the information New Times gathered. She is more than disheartened.
"I think a lot of people would say, `Oh, those are the old days when we used to take crazy people and lock them up and have them sit in their own feces and draw pictures with their own blood -- that really wouldn't happen again.'"
Christian and others say they assumed all was well under Gaspar, the latest director, whose extensive background in corrections and mental health treatment made him a natural to lead the agency. Indeed, Gaspar has earned himself and his agency a national reputation -- and some national awards -- for innovative programming in areas like substance-abuse treatment and family therapy. Gaspar is a big fan of research, and frequently touts studies that show the department's recidivism rates are down and other success indicators up.
But Gaspar fails to mention that his most recent data is almost entirely from 1998 and earlier. And critics say he's more concerned with what people outside his agency think of him than what really goes on inside.
In an interview last month, Gaspar was unwilling to address many of the specific concerns raised by New Times. In fact, he seemed surprised that anyone would question what goes on inside the walls of his agency. After all, he says, his job is really tough; no one else wants the kids he's got in custody. They are sent by county courts as a last-ditch attempt at reform, usually after committing many offenses.
"You've got the 900 worst kids in the state that no one else can handle," he says.
He's wrong. In 1994, Arizona voters approved a ballot measure that automatically bumps violent youth offenders to adult court. Since the law was implemented, ADJC's population has not only declined in numbers, but the kids are younger, and tend to be in for a series of petty offenses rather than heinous violent crimes.
That does not mean that Gaspar and his staff have an easy job. This can be a tough population. There are still some violent kids, including both hardcore and wannabe gang members. More significantly, the population includes the seriously mentally ill, kids with substance-abuse problems, kids who have been physically, verbally and sexually abused in their homes and on the streets.
Rehabilitation is more important than ever. And even though Gaspar insists he's all about rehabilitation, insiders say his philosophy is not reflected on the ground level at Adobe Mountain and ADJC's other facilities.
"The director is always telling us that he wants us to treat these kids as if they were our own," says one high-level supervisor, who has been with the agency for more than three years and has seen the decline in quality of care since the federal court order expired. "And the scary part is, if this is the way you treated your own kids, CPS would remove them."
Read more stories in the Slammed special report.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.