We watch the video footage. These are the moments leading up to the discovery of the boy’s suicide. The grainy, black-and-white images show a staff member looking in the boy’s cell, calling for help, opening the cell door, and, with the assistance of some other residents, pulling the boy’s limp body out onto the floor of the dayroom. 

After watching the video, members of the Attorney General’s office and my staff jump into a conversation about the ongoing internal investigation into his death. I stop them mid-sentence and ask those present to tell me about the boy and his experience at Beaumont.

That was April 15, 2014, my second day as the Director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice. “Beaumont” was the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center, the Department’s oldest and most notorious secure facility.

On the previous day, my first on the job, I visited Beaumont. The tragedy of the boy’s suicide, which took place a few weeks before I started, still hung over the Department, and it was clear to me that understanding its causes and its impact had to be my first focus.

There is a stereotype about prison personnel — based in part on true stories, and in larger part on media portrayals — that they are unfeeling at best, and brutal and sadistic at worst.

Before my arrival at Beaumont on that first day, I carried some of those images in my mind. But as I was escorted inside the barbed-wired facility, it was immediately apparent that this staff cared, and cared a lot. There was a sadness among them that was both evident and palpable. Shoulders were slumped. Eyes were downcast.

When they spoke of the boy who died, or the incident itself, there was a clear sense of failure, loss, and heartache. They even asked if they could hold a memorial service for him so that the other youth on his unit, his family, and the staff could come together to comfort one another and have some kind of closure. I said, of course.

After meeting with the leadership of the facility and discussing issues like morale and what support they needed, I went to the residential unit where the boy had lived at Beaumont.

Residential units at Beaumont were stale and austere places. What little natural light there was came from small skylights in the ceiling, but the illumination from these openings was negligible. The walls were cinder-block and painted white. The floors were concrete and the lights dim and fluorescent. Each kid had a cell that was behind a heavy, steel door. The cells themselves were equally stark, with a concrete bed with a thin mattress and pillow, a shiny metal sink and toilet, a slit of a frosted window, and naked white walls with those same fluorescent lights.

The units looked like cell blocks in an adult prison, not places where we should hold children.

I had been on a unit before I became Director, but seeing this setting now, with youth living there who had just experienced the suicide of one of their peers, made it painfully clear that this was not the kind of setting where youth, or adults for that matter, could best recover or heal from a tragedy of this kind, let alone the traumas so many had experienced prior to, or even during, their confinement. The kids were clearly distrustful and reluctant to talk, their responses to my questions and best efforts to get them to open up mostly monosyllabic, or involving the nod of a head. 

So on that next morning, after watching the video, I asked for information about the boy who died. 

“Robert” came from a fragile and stressed family situation. He had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child. As a 15- or 16-year-old he was convicted of a sex offense and had been incarcerated at Beaumont for a number of years thereafter. He had demonstrated commitment to improving his life prospects by earning his GED while at Beaumont and participating in treatment. But opportunities for further enrichment did not exist because recent budget cuts had decimated the Department’s post-secondary educational and vocational programming. Robert had very little to do during the day. As a result, he spent much of his time — too much of his time — locked up in his cell.

Robert’s individual story was heartbreaking, but it also revealed a broader, troubling narrative about the dynamics and dysfunctions of the institutions for which I was now responsible. For the young people we had locked up, we had little in the way of programming or rehabilitative services, with the result that youth in those facilities spent most of their waking hours locked behind the doors of their cells. And most of the young people at Beaumont stayed there, and in these conditions, for many years. 

During my prior career in child advocacy, I said many disparaging things about the Department and the people who ran it, and on more than one occasion, I threatened to sue the agency I now ran. But now these were my problems to solve, and I felt like the proverbial dog who finally sinks its teeth into the car it is chasing. I had no idea what to do, much less say. The best I could manage was a weak request for updates on the investigations and contact with the family. Deep down, I was at a loss.

It was a humbling and instructive moment. The work of running, let alone reforming, a juvenile justice system (or criminal justice system for that matter) is complex and challenging. While it is easy to be a critic, even when the criticism is deserved, the realities of successfully tackling the many challenges of working with vulnerable and court-involved children defy easy solutions and sound bites. And, with the stakes so high, the price of failure at any point in the system is potentially catastrophic and tragic.

Over the ensuing five years, and thanks to the heroic efforts of the men and women who worked for the Department, we would dramatically transform Virginia’s juvenile justice system. We reduced the number of youth in state facilities by almost two-thirds, provided robust rehabilitative and educational programming for incarcerated youth, and even closed Beaumont itself. We then reinvested the savings from the closure into community-based services so that youth could avoid coming to places like Beaumont in the first place. 

In those first days, however, such changes seemed unimaginable. Robert’s tragedy and the systemic problems that lay behind it were overwhelming. And yet, in the days and weeks that followed, his suicide became something other than a focus of sorrow and pity. Robert’s death became a catalyst for our commitment to do all we could to never allow this to happen again.

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