Jamal Miller's cell

The cell where Jamal Miller committed suicide in September 2009 at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles. (Tribune photo by Scott Strazzante / March 25, 2010)

Sometime before 3:09 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2009, Jamal Miller began to tear the bedsheet in his room at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles.

The stocky 16-year-old tied the sheet to a sock and tied the sock around the metal bar at the top of his bunk bed. He attached three notes to the cinder-block wall with toothpaste and placed another piece of notebook paper in the narrow window of his door.

Since he first threatened to kill himself at age 8, Miller had been hospitalized half a dozen times for psychiatric problems and made at least four suicide attempts. By the time he ended up in the state's juvenile justice system, he had been shuttled in and out of juvenile detention and treatment so often that his mother couldn't remember the last time he celebrated a holiday or birthday at home.

Officials had placed Miller in a corrections facility for mentally ill inmates. But in August, after a psychologist concluded that his primary problem was "criminal thinking," he was transferred to a general-population institution in St. Charles. Less than four weeks later, he placed the torn sheet around his neck and hanged himself from his bed.

Miller's death was the seventh suicide in the state's juvenile correctional facilities in the past decade. Those deaths, as well as 175 serious suicide attempts during the same period, reflect a breakdown in the system that is supposed to rehabilitate and protect some of the state's most troubled and vulnerable young people, a Tribune investigation found.

Department officials estimate that about two-thirds of the 1,200 inmates in the state's eight juvenile justice facilities have been diagnosed with a mental illness and that half the young men and nearly all the young women have thought about or attempted suicide before they enter the system.

While it may be impossible to eliminate all suicide risks behind bars, the state has failed to take simple steps to protect these teenagers from themselves.

The type of metal-frame bunk bed that Miller used to hang himself, which has a sturdy bar across the top, had been involved in three other suicides since 2000 and in at least 21 attempts. But until Miller's death, a lack of urgency and political will kept the bunk beds from being removed. Although officials are now moving to replace them, metal-frame bunks still make up nearly 60 percent of the system's beds.

Other equipment and furnishings pose similar, overlooked hazards. Since 2000, three inmates have hanged themselves from air vent covers, the most recent case involving a model the department considers safe. At least three inmates since 2006 have tried to hang themselves from ceiling light fixtures at the youth center in Harrisburg. Another inmate tried to hang himself from a wall-mounted television stand at the Kewanee facility in February.

Investigations into the seven suicides have left key questions unanswered and failed to resolve inconsistencies in accounts of the deaths, interviews and a review of documents show. Not once did these investigations find fault with current procedures or staff, the Tribune found.

Nationally, suicides in juvenile institutions are relatively rare, but experts say it's crucial to take the threat seriously.

"You need to approach everyone in your care as though the risk of suicide is very, very significant," said Melissa Sickmund, who has studied the issue as chief of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

"Yes, you can say that a kid who is determined to kill themselves will do it," Sickmund said. "But it shouldn't be that easy in prison."

Troubled childhood

The events of Jamal Miller's childhood read like a blur of signposts leading to trouble: He was born as his mother, a crack addict, faced murder charges; placed on Ritalin at age 4; suspended five times from second grade; drinking by age 8; and smoking marijuana at 9.

His first major psychiatric crisis occurred when, at 8, he threatened to kill himself after he was arrested for stealing a bike. He was admitted for two weeks to Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, where doctors diagnosed him with depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and noted that his "emotional life reflects a preoccupation with aggression, violence, and misbehavior."

Over the years, the diagnoses and the drugs would change — bipolar disorder, mood disorder, conduct disorder; Paxil, Risperdal, Zoloft — but Miller seemed unable to control his anger toward others or himself.

In seventh grade he was expelled for pulling a knife on another student. At 13, he was hospitalized after he tried to hang himself with a dog chain. He made another suicide attempt shortly before his 15th birthday, when he tried to suffocate himself by tying a pillow to his face while he was in a residential treatment program for mental illness and drug addiction.

"He used to always say, 'Mama, there's something wrong with me, and I don't know what it is,'" said his mother, Cheryl Miller, 42. "He'd say, 'I try so hard.'"