Suicidal Tendencies: The Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections Is a Bloody Mess

The girl has a history of pulling out chunks of her own hair and drawing on the walls with her feces and blood, then wiping herself with pages she's ripped from a Bible. And she's a cutter. The scars from her self-abuse are visible on her arms and legs.

The details of juvenile cases aren't public, but according to someone close to her, she threatened family members and then a judge; that's how she ended up at the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

She clearly requires constant supervision, but on September 21, staff at the ADJC's Black Canyon facility in Phoenix left the girl alone in a bathroom for at least eight minutes. When a guard finally asked what was taking so long, the girl replied that she was constipated. She emerged from the stall covered in blood and deep cuts she'd made on both arms with a piece of a broken light bulb, then ran through the grounds "with blood squirting everywhere," according to the agency's internal documents.

"It was like CSI meets like a horror movie," one eyewitness tells New Times, adding that some of the cuts "were so bad, to where you could almost see the meat in them."

The girl was handcuffed and taken to a local hospital, where she refused treatment. On the way back to the agency, she bit a staff member who tried to make her wear a seatbelt.

It took two days to clean up the mess in the bathroom.

• On February 14, a boy at the Adobe Mountain facility in Phoenix was found in his room unconscious with a pair of pants tied around his neck. Staff loosened the pants, and the boy gasped for air; later, he admitted he'd had a Valentine's Day fight on the phone with his girlfriend before trying to kill himself.

• On April 3, staff at Black Canyon noticed a girl lying on the floor; another kid admitted she knew the girl was trying to choke herself. A guard cut a ripped T-shirt from around the neck of the girl, who had covered the evidence with a towel after taking a shower.

• On April 4, a boy at the Catalina facility in Tucson jammed his door shut, and it was only when another kid begged a guard to check on him that any adult noticed that the boy was turning red and then blue, with a towel wrapped around his feet and neck to choke himself. Staff eventually kicked down the door and cut the towel off with a knife.

The guards seemed surprised, even though it had been discovered earlier that day that the boy was already making a rope; he was angry that he couldn't make a phone call when he wanted to.

• On May 17, a boy at Adobe Mountain claimed he fell and hit his head, causing a bloody injury, but another kid admitted to guards that the boy had purposely smashed his skull into a metal bar on his bunk bed. Guards then found a bloody staple that the boy had been using to cut his thigh. When he was escorted away, the boy announced, "You haven't seen nothing yet!" asking, "You wanna see blood?"

The guards put the boy in solitary confinement, removed his clothes, and gave him what's called a "suicide suit" to wear. He refused, and stood undressed, hitting his wound and punching the wall with his fist, 'til staff calmed him down.

• Staples are a popular cutting implement for kids at the ADJC. On April 14, staff found that a girl at Black Canyon had hidden a staple under her upper lip. She admitted she'd hidden other staples around her housing unit, and showed them where. She'd also used lead from a pencil to carve into her skin, and showed them where she'd hidden that, too. She told staff she'd made a drawing in science class she was proud of; in it, she's hanging herself.

The staff counseled the girl "about setting goals for herself to keep herself motivated," according to the agency's report on the incident.

"Youth replied, 'If I make a goal for myself it would be to kill myself.'"

The Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections is supposed to educate and rehabilitate juvenile delinquents. Instead, the agency has become the state's adolescent mental hospital, a job it's clearly not equipped to handle.

Things are literally a bloody mess. Staff find screws, nails, and broken pencils in kids' rooms. But self-abuse gets more creative. One boy recently bit off his entire fingernail in front of a guard. A girl in solitary confinement was so desperate to hurt herself that she was seen rubbing her wrist against the rough paint on the floor hard enough to draw blood. The kids are sometimes put into suicide suits so they won't try to hang themselves with their shirts or pants, but the Velcro on the suits presents a challenge; you can draw blood with that, too.

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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.