Edgar's death prompted me to launch Arizona Prison Watch last summer, and led me to investigate the many other juvenile justice issues I was coming across. Then, in May of this year a child committed suicide in Phoenix at one of the state prisons for youth, as did a 17-year old boy on the same Minors Unit in Tucson that Edgar died in. He had just been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Those three boys convinced me that I needed to start a blog dedicated to looking at how the prison industrial complex affects our children (though incarceration of them, as well as incarceration of parents).
I didn't know anything about Edgar when he died, except what I could dig up in court records. But his sad and soulful eyes haunted me. Then in November of last year I was contacted by someone who formerly worked at his school, and knew the teachers most involved in trying to help him. Genie gave me a lot of insight, as well as a thorough summary of the day that Edgar made his plea bargain, written by one of the teachers who went to court for him. What happened to Edgar speaks a lot to what's wrong with the juvenile justice system in this state, which is why his story in particular is so important to tell.
This is who Edgar was and how he ended up dying in a state prison for men:
Edgar and a twin sister were born in Mexico. Soonafter, his family moved to Arizona, where his mother had family. Edgar quickly learned English and grew up here. Since he experienced brain damage at birth, he spent most of his school years in special education programs; testing showed that he was not likely to progress beyond a second-grade level in academic activities. Cognitively, his development was arrested such that his mental capacity was that of a 7 or 8-year old child.
Edgar was always eager to please. He was liked by all of his teachers and counselors, and was very much loved by his family. He was also naive and vulnerable as a result of his disability, but his family - particularly his brothers - worked hard to protect him. Unfortunately, one day in May of 2008 - soon after he turned fifteen - he was playing unsupervised in the park because everyone in his family was at work. He saw a fight on the way home, and stopped to watch, so he was present and picked up with the other kids when the police arrived.
It's unclear what transpired during or immediately after the fight, before he was arrested, but Edgar reportedly brandished a screwdriver at a couple of people. I suspect he was either showing the bravado needed to survive the streets, or he was afraid that he might be attacked and was showing that he could defend himself. No one who knows him believes that he had either the temperament or the capacity to really threaten or harm anyone. His arrest seemed like a terrible misunderstanding that an investigation and explanation of his disability should clear up.
It didn't. Instead, he was detained from the day of arrest without bond until the day he was transferred to the custody of the Arizona Department of Corrections. Despite his disability, Edgar still wanted to graduate from high school. I'm not sure what his plans beyond that were, but his counselor referred to him as one of the DREAM Act kids. Edgar's family never got him legally documented, so he was regarded by police and prosecutors as a criminal alien.
Edgar's cognitive limitations compounded the seriousness of the charges filed against him and the sentencing because he was accused of being a gang member. SIx adults from the community spoke at his sentencing to assure the judge that allegation was untrue. But a cop showed up too, talking about how Edgar had shown them gang signs, gave one officer a gang handshake, and had a gang symbol on his shoe. Of course, it's characteristic of young children to imitate behavior they see, and known gang members were apparently involved in the disturbance that he got caught up in. Two of them told the prosecutor that Edgar was the main agitator and had the "weapon" (the screwdriver) - they got plea bargains for 3 1/2 years for their testimony against him; Edgar was threatened with enough charges that he could have been facing 80 years in prison; I suspect that was what scared the other boys, too...
(this is a work in progress folks - I'll be finishing it up today)