Welcome to the Black Canyon School
Welcome to the Black Canyon School

Welcome to the Hotel Arizona

Fifteen-year-old Sun Lynn Henage threatened another girl with a butter knife after the girl cut ahead of her in line for the shower at the group home where they both lived. The court sentenced Henage to 90 days at Black Canyon, the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections detention facility for girls in north Phoenix.

Instead, Sun Lynn found herself at Black Canyon for 15 months -- and she would have been there longer if she hadn't had a private attorney fighting on her behalf. All told, between county detention and state corrections facilities, Henage served 18 months for her crime; an adult would have served no more than six. She was released about two months before her 18th birthday. (Henage allowed New Times to use her real name since she's now turned 18.)

Contrary to standards recommended by the American Bar Association and juvenile corrections experts, Arizona policymakers have taken juvenile sentencing guidelines out of the hands of the courts and put them solely under the discretion of ADJC. A judge makes a recommendation for a minimum sentence, but ADJC can keep the juvenile past the sentence for as long as the agency sees fit, up to the youth's 18th birthday.


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An agency-wide snapshot taken February 15 showed that of the 890 youths detained by ADJC on that day, only six had been sentenced to 25 months or more. Yet 255 had already served more than two years.

"Welcome to the Hotel Arizona. You can check in any time you like, but you can never leave," says Jan Christian, a Phoenix-based juvenile corrections expert and former head of the task force on juvenile corrections that helped implement significant reform several years ago in response to a federal court order. The order does not directly address sentencing, but calls for use of the least restrictive means of rehabilitating a child.

ADJC officials argue that the agency cannot fulfill its role as rehabilitator with sentences of 60 or 90 days. Critics like Christian and Barbara Cerepayna, Sun Lynn Henage's lawyer, charge that little rehabilitation goes on in the facilities and that by keeping kids like Henage in custody until they turn 18, the agency is robbing kids of the chance to get transition services before they become adults and are forced to fend for themselves on the streets.

Further, Cerepayna says, mentally ill kids like Henage are being held past their sentences because they are unable to comply with behavior requirements set by the agency in order to get out.

This is a nationally recognized problem. In its 2000 annual report, the national Coalition for Juvenile Justice recommends against giving longer sentences and harsher penalties to mentally ill kids.

Henage has been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder, and she's attempted suicide numerous times. She turned 18 last week, and initially moved in with Cerepayna because, her lawyer says, the girl has no place else to go and no idea how to live on her own after her time at ADJC.

Of the agency, Cerepayna says, "They have programs and they have levels and they're into this, `I don't care if you're a round peg, we're going to pound you into this square hole and, if you don't fit, we'll just keep you until you're 18 and we don't have any more to do with you and you're on your own.'"

Sun Lynn Henage has a history of shoplifting and trespassing. She was a frequent runaway.

"She runs because she has the most -- well, as she said to me, `I'm the most fucked-up client you've ever had,'" Cerepayna says.

That's almost true, the lawyer acknowledges -- quite a feat considering Cerepayna's years as a public defender, both in the adult and juvenile systems.

Even back then, Cerepayna and her colleagues tried to avoid incarcerating children.

"We were looking for the least restrictive alternative, which nobody seems to mention anymore. We wanted children to function in the community."

Cerepayna got involved in ADJC politics in the early '90s, when the department was being overhauled as part of the Johnson v. Upchurch federal lawsuit and Cerepayna was asked to sit on a task force that created new standards. For years after she left the public defender agency, Cerepayna represented ADJC juveniles pro bono.

It's a grossly underrepresented population. Juvenile detainees don't have a prison rights group like Middle Ground to represent them. Parents are often absent or unable to do much. And public defenders are cut off from their clients once a kid is institutionalized by ADJC.

But every once in a while, Cerepayna would receive a call from someone inside ADJC who would tell her about a particularly bad situation, ask her to represent a kid. So she would. After the federal court order expired in 1998, those calls stopped coming.

Until February, when Cerepayna heard about Sun Lynn Henage.

Cerepayna runs down the list of her client's misfortunes: She has a mother who's a prostitute and she has a bad relationship with her father. Her stepmother died of brain cancer and her sister committed suicide. Another sister lives on the street. Henage has spent time on the streets herself; she's been gang-raped and beaten. As for drugs, "probably everything there was, she had tried, including shooting up heroin," Cerepayna says.

"From the first talk with her she was irreverent, but so amazingly needy," the lawyer says, recalling that when she asked Henage if she knew what the word "hypothetical" meant, the girl replied, "I'm fucked up, I'm not stupid."

Henage draws and writes poetry. She also pulls out her own hair and scratches herself with pens 'til she bleeds.

"I fell in love with that spirit behind this incredibly abused child," Cerepayna says, her eyes misting.

ADJC officials refuse to comment on Henage's case, but Cerepayna says it took just weeks to get the girl released from the department's custody, and put into a residential treatment center. Henage had to promise Cerepayna she'd stop swearing so much, keep her opinions to herself and stop self-abusing.

But what really made the difference, Cerepayna says, was the presence of a private attorney. Almost overnight, Henage was promoted from sophomore to junior status (girls are required to reach at least the junior level before they can ask to be released from ADJC).

"It was interesting that once I got involved with her, things changed rapidly," Cerepayna says.

Sun Lynn Henage and Barbara Cerepayna sit at a table at the Coffee Plantation on Mill Avenue on a hot June day, two weeks before Henage's 18th birthday.

The two just toured the Arizona State University campus; Cerepayna thought she could get Henage a scholarship for the fall, but advisors at ASU said she should set her sights a little lower, spend some time at a community college first.

That seems fine with Henage, who looks overwhelmed. She sips an orange slush, anticipating dinner out before Cerepayna has to take her back to the residential treatment center where she'll live 'til her birthday.

Cerepayna is more mother than lawyer, at this point, worrying that Henage's medication makes her drowsy, gently chiding the girl for picking at her acne.

Quietly, Henage describes her time at Black Canyon. The girls were "very mouthy" and intimidating, she says. Most of the gang activity was wannabe stuff, but she did meet two serious gang members. Henage was assigned to the Maya cottage, the facility's mental health unit, but even there, she says, the counseling was often given by untrained corrections officers.

"We had some groups you wouldn't believe. Those are the ones you probably want to know about," she says. "One of the staff members had groups like Truth or Dare. She'd bring up issues of the girls, and humiliate the girls in front of everybody."

The staffer would ask questions like, "Is it true that you kissed so and so here, or is it true that you want to do this with this person?"

The reaction? "Everybody'd be laughing except for the girl they'd be talking about." The girl would be "crying or blushing."

She learned more about how to deal with the counselors than she did about how to deal with herself. "I learned to be cautious and be careful how I said things and who I said things to."

The only good part, she says, was that each girl was assigned a staff member as a mentor. She got really close to that person, Henage says; the bad part is that now that she's out of the institution, she can't have any contact with him for two years.

Henage was in and out of the "separation" cottage -- ADJC's version of solitary confinement -- a lot, sometimes for arguing with staff, other times for self-abusing.

The longest stretch was two weeks; staff wouldn't let her out if she refused to shower or eat. In separation, you don't get a pillow or sheets for your bed, just a mattress, she says. At night, a blanket. She was given schoolwork to complete, but describes it as busy work -- multiplication tables when Henage had already passed her GED and was doing college work. She was also given paperwork to complete, extensive essay questions about acceptable behavior. If she didn't finish the paperwork, she didn't get her hour of exercise time.

She was in exclusion, too, locked in her cell often for a couple days at a time.

The day before Henage was released from ADJC, a counselor told her that "the chances of me getting out were as good as the chance of his water bottle growing legs and walking off his desk."

The next day, after Cerepayna made her case, the counselor told those assembled that "he'd been working for weeks to make this happen."

ADJC Director David Gaspar won't talk about Sun Lynn Henage, but he does acknowledge that Barbara Cerepayna has been asking questions.

"Barbara creates anxiety for people," he says. "I think anybody who has passion for what they believe about a kid could create that. I think our agency struggles with how we understand that. I embrace that. I embrace Barbara coming in here and talking to them. Because I frankly see them as throwaway kids by society."

Read more stories in the Slammed special report.


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