On October 10, 2011, 14-year-old Jordan Adams was found unconscious on the floor of his isolation cell at the Granbury Regional Juvenile Justice Center (GRJJC) in Granbury, Texas. A sheet was wrapped around his neck. He died six days later at the Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth without regaining consciousness, after being removed from life support. The cause of his death was manual strangulation.
The GRJJC is a 96-bed facility that houses juvenile offenders from various Texas counties; it is operated by 4M Granbury Youth Services, a for-profit company. Jordan’s death at GRJJC was the first of a juvenile prisoner in Texas since 2003, according to Lisa Capers, deputy executive director and general counsel of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (TJPC). The TJPC and local police launched investigations.
“The sheet was around his neck,” noted Granbury Police Captain Alan Hines. “We are investigating to determine whether this was an accident or there needs to be criminal charges for homicide.”
The mystery is how someone could kill a child held in a locked isolation cell. Tanya Hernandez, 37, Jordan’s mother, struggled with that question. “We’ve heard several different stories,” she said. “I don’t know what to believe at this point.”
According to Hernandez, a “juvenile director” told her that Jordan had been engaging in the “choking game,” a dangerous attempt to get high through oxygen deprivation.
“I’d never, ever heard of kids doing that, but now I hear that all over the United States, kids have been doing this,” said Hernandez, who believes that Jordan’s fragile mental condition might have made him susceptible to participating in the choking game.
“I’m just speculating, but I believe someone had talked him into doing that and Jordan had no idea of the consequences,” she said. “The doctor told us all the ligaments and his main artery in his neck were so damaged that we don’t really know if it was actually a game or if the [other] boy actually [purposely] did it. Everything on his neck was torn except his spinal cord. He must have pulled so hard.”
But asphyxiation to get high is not the only explanation GRJJC officials have provided for Jordan’s death. The first reason given to Hernandez, the press and the TJPC was that Jordan was involved in a game of tug-of-war with another juvenile in a neighboring cell.
According to that version of events, prisoners who grow bored with being locked in isolation cells combat the boredom by passing a sheet under their door and the door of a neighboring cell, then playing tug-of-war with the sheet. Under this theory, Jordan played tug-of-war with another prisoner but, for some inexplicable reason, wrapped the sheet around his neck so that his neighbor inadvertently choked him to death.
GRJJC facility administrator Ted Cooley stated he had never heard of prisoners playing tug-of-war and that such behavior would be strictly prohibited. He said structural changes were being discussed that would prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
Not only should such games be prohibited, they also should be known to GRJJC staff. Sheets passed between two neighboring cell doors would have to pass along the hallway, and guards are supposed to walk through the hallways when periodically checking the isolation cells. However, TJPC records indicate that GRJJC has a history of failing to comply with routine cell monitoring requirements.
A May 2011 compliance audit at GRJJC reported a failure to make the mandatory once-every-fifteen-minute cell checks in four of the 10 medical isolation cases reviewed.
A failure to make required ten-minute checks of four juveniles who were determined to be moderate suicide risks also was noted. The state compliance officers further found that GRJJC logs indicated violations of routine cell checks.
Similar findings had been noted in a 2008 state inspection, when around half of the required cell checks were not performed. Additionally, a state inspection in 2009 reported “numerous unsanitary and unhealthy living conditions” at GRJJC.
Slacking by GRJJC staff may extend beyond cell checks and hygiene issues. In June 2011, the facility was cited for failing to promptly report a detainee’s allegation of staff sexual abuse. Further, almost 200 complaints and serious incidents have been reported at GRJJC from late 2007 through October 2011, including assaults, physical abuse and suicide attempts.
Jordan had been diagnosed with attention-deficit, hyperactivity and mood disorders. He had spent 10 days at the GRJJC earlier in 2011 after pulling a knife during a fight with his 17-year-old brother.
“They told him if he didn’t get into any trouble for six months, they would drop the charge,” said Hernandez. “It was kind of brothers being brothers that got out of hand.”
But Jordan didn’t make it through six months without getting into trouble. He was returned to the GRJJC after hitting another boy on a school bus – an incident that was captured on video tape.
Hernandez tried to get professional help for her son. He had been a mental health patient for six years and she had convinced GRJJC officials to transfer him to a mental health facility. The transfer was scheduled for October 13, 2011 – three days after Jordan was found unconscious in his cell.
This tragic incident underscores how inappropriate it is for private companies to manage detention facilities. For-profit corporations are primarily concerned about profit, not about the wellbeing of the prisoners under their custody and control. One way to increase profits is to cut personnel, which reduces payroll costs. When staffing levels decline, however, routine tasks such as cell checks are delayed or ignored – sometimes with fatal results.
“The only way they can make a profit is to decrease the salary or staff or reduce services,” noted Ana Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
In January 2012, an unidentified 14-year-old juvenile at GRJJC pleaded guilty to the equivalent of criminally negligent homicide in connection with Jordan’s death. No details were reported as to the nature of the charge or how Jordan had died.
Jordan’s father, Kenneth Grant, who was incarcerated in a Texas state prison unit at the time of his son’s death, has since filed a federal lawsuit against GRJJC, 4M Granbury Youth Services and other defendants. The case remains pending. See: Grant v. Granbury Regional Juvenile Justice Center, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:12-cv-00357-A.
Sources: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, www.ktxs.com, Reuters
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Related legal case
Grant v. Granbury Regional Juvenile Justice Center
|U.S.D.C. (N.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:12-cv-00357-A