She Sees Demons

The overwhelming concern, when it comes to juvenile corrections and mental illness, is that kids are being jailed for petty crimes caused by behavior related to pre-existing mental illness.

But sometimes a kid commits a serious crime — and then cracks. That appears to be what happened to a 16-year-old girl at the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections' Black Canyon facility. A review of police reports, ADJC incident reports, and interviews with her mother and Black Canyon staff reveal that this girl is apparently in need of more psychiatric care than she's getting right now.

The mother, who requested anonymity because of her own immigration status, says in Spanish that her daughter was born in Mexico; she and her family moved here when she was 2 months old. The girl was compliant and sweet, 'til she turned 12 and her parents divorced. Then, her mother reports, she fell in with a bad crowd and had trouble saying "no".

In July 2006, when she was 13, the girl stole her mother's car. Two men in another car died in a crash in west Phoenix; the girl and the driver of a third car were found responsible. The girl was sent to ADJC 'til she was 18.

The girl sustained a head injury in the crash, and her mother thinks that might have something to do with the fact that about a year after it happened, the girl started experiencing hallucinations.

The episodes have continued, and are documented repeatedly in incident reports obtained by New Times. Her mother says the girl is haunted by the memory of the two men who died in the crash; an ADJC employee who has dealt with the girl confirms this.

"She has these flashbacks of these boys, and she also sees demons, and she flips out. She gets stronger than Hercules," the employee says. "It takes two or three of us to control her. You can see that she's not faking it."

The girl's mother says she visits every Sunday for two or three hours, depending on the girl's behavior the prior week. She says her daughter tells her that she sees the men's eyes at night and that she's been medicated, but it didn't work, so she stopped taking the pills. The mother believes her daughter does not receive enough counseling.

Here are examples of reported incidents New Times reviewed. Some document hallucinations; others, suicidal behavior.

On October 6, 2008, the girl was using the bathroom. When she had not emerged for five minutes, a guard walked in and saw her shoes, then realized she was lying flat on her back, arms out. "Her yellow sweatshirt was tied around her neck tightly. She was breathing rapid and shallow. Her eyes were wide open, but she was not responsive to any stimulus at this time," the guard wrote. "Her complexion was a heavy blue/purple shade with almost no natural skin tone. As I attempted to call Code 3 Medical/10x24 Danger to Self, my radio battery died. I attempted to untie the sweatshirt, it loosened. As it loosened, I noticed the blue piece of shirt fixed 9 [tied] around her throat."

Two guards held her down and cut the shirt away.

A letter from the girl was turned in with the incident report:

Oh my fucking goodness, these fucking demons keep bugging the shit out of me, its like sometimes I just want to go crazy and tell them to get the fuck away but im scared cause they might try and kill me in my sleep, where im not paying attention to what's going on and I just wish this was over so I dont have to deal with this shit.

On December 5, 2008, when the girl was using the bathroom and hadn't emerged after a few minutes, a guard walked in and again found her on the floor, with the sleeve of her sweatshirt wrapped once around her neck.

"She opened her eyes and looked up at me," the guard wrote, "I asked what happened, she didn't know. I asked what she was thinking about when she went into the restroom? She stated 'Demons.'"

On February 8, 2009, the girl was in the hall by her room when someone on the staff was alerted that she was having hallucinations. She was "screaming, crying, and appeared to be responding to internal stimuli," a staff member wrote. The staff put ice in the girl's hands. She repeatedly said, "No, he's here, he's here" and stopped, before beginning to say it again when a security guard appeared. She denied any suicidal thoughts, but asked the staff whether she'd always have the hallucinations and wondered what she'd do if they never went away.

On March 8, the girl had hallucinations again. This time she wrapped her hands around her own throat; guards had to pry her fingers away. She yelled that she's not crazy.

On March 9, the girl was at recreation when she began to shake and scream and, eventually, to run across the field.

On March 12, the girl had more hallucinations. She started shaking, crying, and yelling, "They're coming!" There were several episodes that day.

On April 22, more hallucinations.

Between episodes, her mother says, the girl is a good student and artist. She brings out a notebook filled with careful drawings. Her daughter wants to be a cosmetologist, she says, and has decided she wants to return to Mexico when she gets out of the ADJC; her father and grandmother live there. That's a good thing, since her paperwork indicates that ICE already has a hold on her; she's set to be deported to Mexico when she turns 18, in January 2010. (Interview translated by Malia Politzer)

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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