Teenage Wasteland

It's not as easy as it used to be to kill yourself while in the custody of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. Some kids still try.

In April 2005, a boy incarcerated at Eagle Point School in Buckeye made a serious suicide attempt — serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital, serious enough that word spread among the other four ADJC facilities in the state.

This boy had recently arrived at Eagle Point. Like many of the other kids detained by ADJC, he's not a violent criminal; he was in for petty crimes.

During recreation time one day, the boy walked across the football field, took off his yellow tee shirt, tied one end around the goal post and the other around his neck and almost successfully hanged himself.

Staff and kids rushed to get him down, says Michael Branham, the agency's director, who confirmed the suicide attempt.

This, despite the agency's best efforts to prevent suicides — or even attempts. In the past two years, ADJC has been retrofitting vents, door hinges and bunk beds in cells to make them suicide-proof.

The incident at Eagle Point makes it clear — you can't suicide-proof a kid, not even with fancy vents and bunk beds fused to the cinder block wall of the cell.

Branham says he does not know how many times in the past two years kids have been taken to the hospital following suicide attempts. Getting that data would take a long time, he says, because all self-destructive behavior — from punching the wall with a closed fist, on up — is classified by ADJC as suicidal behavior.

It's disturbing that Branham and his staff can't — or won't — say offhand how many times a suicide attempt has meant a hospital visit. Suicide has been a constant topic for the department since three boys — Christopher Camacho, David Horvath and Roy Roman Jr. — successfully hanged themselves at Adobe Mountain School, between 2002 and 2003. All three cases have been settled with the state. Sources report that the total cost to the state to pay off the three families was under $1.5 million.

But ADJC has paid in other ways as well. At the time the boys committed suicide, the U.S. Department of Justice was already looking at ADJC, following a series of articles published in Phoenix New Times, beginning in the summer of 2001, which reported on deplorable conditions at the agency's institutions.

The formal federal investigation began in June 2002, shortly after Camacho's death.

At the time, Jane Dee Hull was governor. She had refused, in July 2001, to create a task force to examine conditions at the agency, even though the request came in a letter signed by 30 community leaders. When the feds announced their investigation, George Weisz, then Hull's adviser on crime issues (today he works for the mayor of Phoenix), told New Times, "I think they've done an outstanding job, especially in improving over the past five years."

Hull said nothing.

At the time, Janet Napolitano was attorney general. She didn't say anything, either.

Rick Romley, the former Maricopa County attorney who at one point early on in the 2006 political season considered challenging Napolitano for the governor's seat, says he's never understood why the then-attorney general didn't launch a civil rights investigation after abuses were first revealed in New Times.

"Why is it the feds had to do it when we in our own state have an obligation," Romley asks, "to look out for the welfare of our own children, to be sure things are being done appropriately?"

Napolitano's deputy chief of staff, Mikel Haener, says in an e-mail that an investigation was outside of the AG's scope. The governor continues to say nothing. Her staff said she was too busy to be interviewed for this story.

The federal investigation concluded in 2004, with a host of recommendations for reform and three years to implement them, under federal monitors. The compliance agreement should be satisfied by September 2007.

"While there is still work to be done, we have made tremendous progress," Haener says.

He's right. By all accounts, the reform effort is going well. The federal monitors visit ADJC facilities regularly, and write long reports about whether the state is in compliance.

There have been some snags. For example, kids are still locked alone and unsupervised in their cells as punishment, or kept in solitary confinement too long. That should change soon, agency staffers say.

Then the feds will be gone. And Arizona's system will be reformed, but reformed with a lower-case "r." Real "Reform" could next come in a bold decision by the governor to follow the lead of many states around the country and convert Arizona's big juvenile corrections facilities to a rehabilitative system incorporating community support.

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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.