Longform

Kid Row

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That visit led to the lawsuit and court order, designed to ensure that draconian conditions in the state's youth corrections facilities improved. And they did, for a while.

Now, as cases like Rebecca's suggest, ADJC administrators are allowing conditions to deteriorate.

According to her file, Rebecca was to remain in separation until her 18th birthday on May 29 -- at which time she would be released from ADJC's custody to the street -- or until she completed the "Six Principles of Behavior," an extensive series of worksheets requiring her to answer essay questions about acceptable behavior at Black Canyon.

Although her rap sheet is long -- shoplifting, probation violation, possession of drug paraphernalia, "threatening and intimidation" -- Rebecca had committed no violent offenses before her arrival at Black Canyon.

Once at the facility, she was charged with aggravated assault against a corrections officer. In another incident, she threatened a girl with a toothbrush sharpened into a weapon.

This was clearly a child in no shape to complete worksheets. According to ADJC records, Rebecca has been diagnosed as possibly psychotic or bi-polar. "Since youth has been at BCS, youth has began cutting on her arms," her file states, noting "incidents of suicidal gestures, need for mental health hospitalization, self-abusive behaviors. . . ."

And those are just a few of her problems. Rebecca's file also notes that prior to her incarceration she used drugs daily for five to six years, including cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana, alcohol and acid. She's been involved in gang activity. There has been domestic violence in her home. She's a ward of Child Protective Services; her father doesn't want her home.

So ADJC officials did what they often do when faced with a kid like Rebecca. They locked her away.




Each of ADJC's facilities has a separation cottage, designed to house violent or otherwise dangerous juveniles in small cells for short periods of time -- 30 minutes, a couple of hours, perhaps a day -- until they can control their behavior and are no longer a threat to themselves or others.

But increasingly, according to department records and interviews with staff, those intended short periods are turning into days, even weeks or months.

Before he came to the agency in 1994, ADJC Director David Gaspar says, corrections officers ran the separation units. He replaced the guards with "mental health treatment coordinators" who are required to have a master's degree in counseling or a related field.

But those treatment specialists don't have final say on whether a youth is put in separation, or for how long. That is left to administrators. And staff say the administrators often overrule the treatment coordinators because of what they describe as a culture of convenience. This despite the fact that the federal court order requires the department to use separation only "to protect the youth or others from imminent risk of injury, destruction of property, disruption of the facility or escape risk."

Gaspar describes separation as a "pretty nice package" -- an "intensive intervention environment for a kid who has demonstrated he cannot perform satisfactorily in the general population." Kids are judged on "attitude, behavior and skills" (that's where the worksheets come in) and are not allowed out until they change.



And if that takes more than a few hours or a day, so be it, Gaspar says. He refuses to discuss Rebecca's case or any other, but does acknowledge that earlier this year a boy at Catalina Mountain School was held in separation for 53 days.

Is Gaspar comfortable with that?

"I would say yeah, that kids who are in those programs earn their way out of those programs and to the degree that a kid either chose not to earn his way out or it took him that long with us to get a handle on those sorts of issues, yeah," he says.

An April 20 report noted that 11 ADJC kids were then being held in separation for 24 hours or more, including five who had been isolated for seven days or more.

And it looks like the time kids spend in separation will only increase in the future.

A policy drafted this year by ADJC officials and signed by assistant director Joe Taylor sets out a plan whereby a youth accused of assaulting another youth or staff member will remain in separation until an investigation is complete -- something officials acknowledge can take several months. Gaspar says the policy is not yet in place.

Putting a kid in separation requires paperwork and approval up the ladder. Some staff members prefer to put kids in "exclusion," where the juveniles are simply locked in their own cells instead of transported to separation cottages. According to the federal court order, exclusion is only to be used for two hours at a time, but records indicate kids are sometimes locked in their cells for days.

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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 amy-silverman.com.