Friday, October 23, 2020

Maricella’s Last Breath: She died alone in a cell at 16. Officials said they were devastated. They didn’t say they did anything wrong.

From JSOnline:

Rory Linnane, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Maricella Chairez wanted to keep breathing. 

In her cell at the Racine County Juvenile Detention Center, she drew the word “breath” big among clouds and stars on a poster she hung next to the calendar where she crossed off the days. 

The drawing was next to her on the wall when she took her last breath sometime after 10:42 p.m. Dec. 10, 2017. 

Nearby was a crumpled piece of paper. It said: “I’m going crazy in this place.” 

On her desk were journals and poetry. “Everybody got a story that needs to be told,” she wrote. “So here I go with mine. Ready set and go.” 

Maricella was 16. She never had the chance to share her story with the world, grow up with her little brother, frame her photography or fulfill her dream of helping other survivors of trafficking.

Five days after Maricella died by suicide, officials responsible for her care issued a brief news release. 

“The juvenile was found unresponsive in her cell during the night,” they wrote. They said they were devastated. They said children in their care were like family.

They didn’t say what records would later reveal — that jail guards were late to check on Maricella the night she died, that she had been isolated despite national guidance against such a practice, and that her death involved a suicide hazard in her cell that staff knew was dangerous. 

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel examination of hundreds of documents, including medical records, police reports and court transcripts, shows authorities repeatedly failed Maricella, not only in her final days but for years before that. County workers often didn’t find her proper mental health care. Police downplayed her reports of sexual assault. A judge ordered her jailed the night she escaped traffickers. 

Throughout this story, click [highlighted] phrases to learn about steps recommended by experts to better serve young people like Maricella.

In jail, Maricella attempted suicide multiple times. During that time, she told officials she needed more help than she was getting in detention. 

Even in death, Maricella didn’t get the full attention of authorities.

State corrections officials did not produce a full report on her death. Instead, a corrections inspector sent a two-page letter to jail officials 464 days after she died, praising them for doing an “excellent job” providing mental health care to jail workers who responded to the suicide. The report said nothing about the lack of mental health services for Maricella.

Maricella’s mother, Cynthia Casillas, shared medical and legal records with the Journal Sentinel, saying she hoped her daughter’s story could help others so that “another parent does not have to go through the tragedy we’re living."

Nine days before Maricella died, she had almost died the same way. She had tied clothing around her neck and through the holes in her bunk. 

Even though some experts say bunks should be banned from cells because they pose a suicide risk, no one got Maricella a safer bed or removed the unused bed from her cell. She died tied to the upper bunk. 

One of the last entries in her journal said: “I know a lot of people going through a harder struggle then me. So why am I trippin.”

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