The Kids Are Still Not Alright

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• A corrections officer threw a girl to the ground and held his arm against her neck -- she was bruised and cut -- because she refused to go to her cell when asked.

According to an ADJC staff interview with the girl, three corrections officers responded to a call for assistance. An officer grabbed Beth's arm; she pulled back and said, "Get off of me."

"She had lotion in her hand and said, 'Let me put this on my foot real quick.'"

The officer said, "Wrong answer," and swung her off the table. He told her to go to her room; Beth told him to get out of her face. Finally, he got her up against the wall, then threw her to the ground on her stomach and, according to Beth, said, "Oh, Big Bad Beth, whatcha gonna do now, what else do you have to say?"

Beth responded: "I can't breathe," and spit up blood. When she told him she was "fucking calm," she was taken to separation, or solitary confinement.

"It concerns me that staff needed security to intervene due to a youth taking an extra shower and then refusing to give back a bottle of lotion. Surely, the department has taught its staff proper therapeutic interventions on how to manage troubled youth, or how to use pro-social ways of handling situations so that a power struggle does not occur," an ADJC staff member complained to superiors after the incident with the girl.

"It concerns me more that security was not able to find another way of dealing with this youth other than using physical force to intervene. . . . When are we going to learn our lesson? Will it be when a youth is severely injured? When we are sued? Or when we are in a situation involving another [federal court order]?"

Steve Meissner, the agency spokesman, says state law prohibits the agency from discussing specific cases, even if juveniles' names are not published.

He says the average length of stay for a youth in "separation" is 36 hours. He says department policy allows kids to use the bathroom, but he won't address his own staff member's detailed report on kids being forced to urinate in plastic bags.

As far as pepper spray is concerned, Meissner says, "In each instance where staff have determined that force may be necessary, security staff are trained to use the least amount of force required to control the situation. The fact that there has been only one incident where pepper spray was used, though a policy has been in place for several years, should make it self-evident that staff use this option with the utmost care."

Meissner did not mention that the department's pepper spray policy was suspended after the recent incident and that ADJC's lawyer, Lou Goodman, requested an investigation into the boy on the couch.

Russ Van Vleet says he sees no reason why ADJC can't answer questions about individual cases.

"I think that's the decision they've made to try to keep people from looking at what they're doing," he says. "You have to allow the light to come in and it needs to come in from outside the system. It's ridiculous to refuse to discuss individual cases."

Van Vleet says he can't think of another juvenile corrections institution in the country that allows the use of pepper spray. And no "well-run facility," he says, would allow children to urinate in bags.

"It's just part of that degrading, inhumane thing that makes this notion of rehabilitation such a farce," he says.

And as for the kid in 278-plus hours of solitary confinement, "It really amazes me, frankly, that that's occurring, because that's what started the Johnson v. Upchurch lawsuit."

This week, the Arizona Legislature will finish tinkering with the 2002 budget. Like all state agencies, ADJC is sure to take a hit -- quite likely on the ground level, with cuts in youth corrections officer positions, even though many critics say poor staffing has led to many of the department's problems.

Several state legislators, including Republican Tom Smith, vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have told New Times they're certain nothing's wrong at ADJC. Smith knows that, he says, because he's toured Adobe Mountain School.

Dennis Pickering, who heads the Arizona Juvenile Justice Commission, says his group -- which, he adds, has no real authority to change conditions at ADJC -- will tour Adobe Mountain early next year. With 20 years of experience in juvenile justice issues, Pickering says, he's certain he'll be able to tell whether anything's amiss at ADJC, after a three-hour tour with Director Gaspar.

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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