Dying Young

A boy who died in an apparent suicide at an Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections facility was locked in his cell for more than a week at a time and complained repeatedly that a staff member was touching boys inappropriately, according to internal ADJC documents.

ADJC has released almost no official details about the life and death of Christopher Camacho, who was found dead with a sheet tied around his neck at about 8:40 p.m. April 11, sources say. Department spokesman Steve Meissner says the death is under investigation.

Camacho's apparent suicide was the first death in a state juvenile corrections facility in 14 years, state officials say. No one knows yet -- or at least they're not saying publicly -- why Camacho may have felt the need to take his own life.

What is known is that the living conditions in Freedom, the cottage where Camacho lived, were not optimum, according to ADJC documents obtained by New Times. In February, Camacho filed a formal grievance against Michael Cowie, a youth corrections officer assigned to Freedom.

In the grievance, filed February 12, Camacho wrote: "Mr. Cowie a staff on Freedom inappropriately touching kids in this unit. (Butt) He looks at kids when they are drying off after a shower."

The supervisor's response, written on the bottom of the grievance form: "I have spoken to Mr. Cowie now three times. It is his life style [sic] and personality to be physically affectionate. I have set him a set of directives to follow. . . . He understands he has set his boundaries and space better and if he wants to hug and pat a kid not to. I will follow at least weekly on his progress."

On February 18, a youth rights advocate met with several Freedom youth to discuss the complaints against Cowie. The next day, she wrote to ADJC officials: "Due to the serious nature of these allegations and the youth's [sic] need to feel safe and comfortable within there [sic] environment, I am requesting that an investigation be conducted immediately and that Mr. Cowie be removed from working directly with all youth."

Meissner did not respond to questions regarding the status of Cowie's employment with ADJC or to a request for an interview with Cowie.

The youth rights advocate also has expressed concern in recent weeks, in repeated memos and e-mails, regarding the issue of locking kids in their cells for days or weeks at a time. Adobe Mountain officials call the practice of locking up an entire cottage "large group status," but most staff members refer to it as a "lock down." Either way, the youth are locked in their cells almost around the clock -- forced to eat, study and exercise in the tiny cinderblock rooms.

Meissner refused to comment on allegations that the ADJC youth rights advocate has begged her superiors to address, including concerns about dehydration and denial of adequate exercise, education and access to clergy.

"The issues are serious violations of state, federal and constitutional laws," she wrote in one memo.

In another, she detailed that, as of March 26, the Freedom cottage -- Camacho's cottage -- had been on lockdown for more than a week. "The youth's rooms are very hot, the youth are not getting outside activity," she wrote. Another cottage, Hope, was on lockdown for more than two weeks in March.

After 14 days, the youth rights advocate wrote, "The kids apparently have not been to education, have not had recreation, and have not been outside of their rooms. Meals are being served inside their rooms. One room had three boys in it, and there were only two bunks, so a mattress had to be placed on the floor. The three boys were eating at the time, and the one on the floor was just about 2 feat [sic] from the toilet. I just don't see how this is therapeutic. Where is the intervention? Why are these kids having to live in these conditions?"

Three days later, she wrote of the youth in Hope: "They have had a limited amount of large muscle movement (less than 10 minutes per day) and have had no opportunity to go out doors [sic] and get a breath of fresh air. The courts have found that when similar issues have been raised, denying prisoners the opportunity for fresh air and regular exercise violates the Eighth Amendment." The kids were given educational material of a second-grade academic level, she added.

Further, she wrote: "The temperatures in the rooms shared by 3 youth are high and the ventilation is not adequate, proper air flow in the rooms are [sic] extremely important for the youth who have to eat meals in close proximity to the toilet. . . . The water in the unit has been turned off, which does not allow the youth to drink water at their discretion or flush the toilets after they have gone to the bathroom. The youth are given small cups of water every few hours, which is not sufficient to prevent dehydration. Consequently, the youth have complained of extreme fatigue which may be an indication of not drinking enough fluids or having regular exercise."

Two days later, she e-mailed a supervisor who informed her that Hope was still on lockdown.

Both inside and outside of ADJC, experts express concern that such conditions could lead to a kid's deterioration -- and maybe even suicide.

Russell Van Vleet, a Utah-based juvenile corrections consultant with 30 years in the business, says a suicide can occur anyplace, anytime.

"To be fair, people do die in facilities that are well operated, too," he says. "But when you know that conditions aren't the way they're supposed to be . . . your responsibility certainly heightens. Your liability should, too."

Van Vleet says that the "sensory deprivation" that results from several days in a lockdown situation is dangerous. He's familiar with such conditions. Van Vleet was one of the monitors of the 1993 federal court order imposed on ADJC facilities to address conditions such as those the youth rights advocate is complaining about now.

"That's back where we were with the original . . . problems," Van Vleet says.

Last year, New Times reported that similar situations had arisen in the past four years, after the court order was lifted ("Slammed," Amy Silverman, July 5, 2001). The series of articles detailed evidence of physical, sexual and verbal abuse of juvenile detainees by staff, inadequate mental health and educational services, and instances in which kids were kept in detention far longer than their recommended time of stay.

At the time, ADJC staff lamented privately that it was going to take a death in one of their facilities to get the attention of state and federal officials who are in a position to take action and improve conditions.

"I'm just surprised that it's taken us this long to have a fatality," says one high-level supervisor, who has been with the agency for more than three years and who has seen the decline in quality of care since the federal court order expired.

Without an outside investigation, it will be difficult to know for certain what led to Christopher Camacho's death, Van Vleet says.

He's not hopeful. Last July, more than 30 community leaders, includingVan Vleet, wrote to Governor Jane Dee Hull, requesting that she create a task force to look into ADJC.

The community leaders' letter to Hull asked for a review of "conditions of confinement, length of stay determination and aftercare services throughout ADJC." It requested that the majority of task force members come from outside ADJC.

More than nine months later, Van Vleet has heard nothing from Hull. Neither has Jan Christian, the former executive director of the Governor's Select Commission and Task Force on Juvenile Corrections, who headed the letter-writing group.

"I am saddened to hear that we have lost another youth," Christian says. "I wonder if his death might have been prevented if Governor Hull had created an independent group to investigate your findings, as so many of us asked her to do last summer. I hope she will reconsider our request in light of this."

Click here for related stories in the "Slammed" series.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at