Untold Arizona: The Only Boy Scout Troop Behind Bars

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Tuesday, February 13, 2018 - 3:49pm
Updated: Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 3:08pm

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To commemorate Arizona’s birthday, we dispatched our reporters far and wide to bring you stories from the region you've probably never heard before. Hear more from our Untold Arizona series.

Troop 4 is like any other Boy Scout troop. After reciting the Scout Oath, they start their weekly meeting. Today the group of gangly teens gathers around Assistant Scoutmaster Avery Thresher as he shows them how to use a compass and map — classic scout stuff.

Avery Thresher
(Photo by Jimmy Jenkins - KJZZ)
Assistant Scoutmaster Avery Thresher teaches scouts from Troop 4 how to use a compass

Thresher spreads the map out on a table in front of the boys and explains how to calculate distance. “So the next thing we’re gonna do is to go outside and do an exercise to set their pace to see how far their stride is,” Thresher said.

Everybody heads outside and lines up on the basketball court to measure their stride, but they can’t go too far. Across from the court is tall double fencing topped with razor wire.

Scout Troop 4 is made up of inmates at the Adobe Mountain School, a secured facility for juvenile offenders, just north of Phoenix. It’s the only Boy Scout troop behind bars in the United States.

Growing Up Behind Bars

There are 154 boys and 12 girls ages 14-17 at Adobe Mountain. The typical stay for most of them is around eight months.

Jesse Etheridge is a scout working with Assistant Scoutmaster Allyn Calhoun. Etheridge finds he's slightly off in his calculations. 

"So if we extended that five miles and you weren’t following the line — what would happen?" Calhoun asks. "You wouldn’t find the way?" Etheridge responds. "You’d be lost right? So we could miss our next mark, by lots,” Calhoun warned.

Standing off to the side as the boys follow imaginary lines across the recreation yard, Peter Lusczcak watches the scouts as they work together. Luszczak is the chief administrator of clinical and support services at Adobe Mountain. He said the scouting program keeps the kids active and brings out their best qualities.

"Positive thinking, making good choices, you know being honest, trustworthy, those kinds of things," he said. "It’s all about getting kids to review and address the reasons why they’re here and going along a wrong path."

Luszczak said the Scouting program is a success. More than 300 boys have gone through Troop 4, and they’re expanding the program to include Girl Scouts later this year.

Scouts Usually Don't Return 

Adobe Mountain doesn’t track recidivism rates for the troop, but Luszczak said the kids in the Scouting program usually don’t come back.

Maurice Portley was a Maricopa County Juvenile Court judge. Recently retired from the Arizona Court Of Appeals, he said one of the advantages of working with a young offender is you can make a bigger difference by intervening earlier.

"Like being a parent," he said of juvenile corrections, "you plant seeds and you hope that they flourish in time so when the opportunity arises the kid makes a better choice the next time.”

He said judges send juveniles to the Adobe Mountain and Black Canyon facilities when they think there is a program that can be helpful that might now be locally available for the child. 

"Or it's maybe the last chance the court wants to give a youngster without having that person transferred to the adult court," Portley said.

Portley, a former scout himself, said the Adobe Mountain program is effective because it helps scouts feel proud of themselves and puts them on a new path.

“Sometimes that path is boring, and it’s tiring," he said. "But you never get in trouble on that path.”

Xavier Galvan was a youth leader in Troop 4, while he was at Adobe Mountain. He credits the scouting program with successful transition back to society.

Adobe Mountain School
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
The Adobe Mountain School, located north of Phoenix, is a secured detention facility for juvenile offenders.

"Scouts helped me hone in on those leadership qualities that were already in me," Galvan said. "At the time I didn't appreciate myself very much. But being asked, "What is your opinion? What do you think we should do?' was a new thing to me, and now I have a higher opinion of myself."

Galvan said before Adobe Mountain, he came from a troubled life.

"Scouting helped me develop a lot more as a person. Just having a little bit of normality helped a lot," said Galvan.

He said the volunteers scoutmasters are good role models for the boys, who otherwise have led lives mostly devoid of positive male figures.

Galvan's favorite badge to earn was first aid. He said he still keeps an emergency kit in his backpack and hopes to go into the medical field.

Finding The Right Path

Thomas Mayo thinks back to when he was first sentenced to Adobe Moutain.

"The path that I followed before wasn’t the right path and I knew that — I just wasn’t thinking,” he said.

Mayo is a smiley 17-year-old who has trouble sitting still. He used to have anger issues and was disrespectful to other kids on the yard, but now he said he doesn’t act that way anymore. He’s holding himself to a higher standard.

Thomas Mayo and Jesse Etheridge
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
Thomas Mayo and Jesse Etheridge lead a 5-mile hike.

“I know that now, it’s not the thing to do," he said of his previous bad behavior. "It’s not the way that a Boy Scout acts.”

The scouting program has helped him calm down and stay focused. He still gets in trouble, but less often. And his good behavior paid off.

Beyond The Walls

On a recent chilly morning on a trailhead near Adobe Mountain, Thomas and Jesse are getting ready for a hike. They get to go for a five-mile hike supervised excursion outside the walls of Adobe Mountain. They’re pursuing their 2nd class scouting rank and Thomas is excited.

"Very excited, actually!" he said. "I finally get to hike again.”

It’s early in the day but Jesse’s ready to go, too. He’s got a backpack full of snacks and compass and map in hand.

“Feeling good," he said. "I’m actually wide awake. I love to look at nature and see what’s around."

(Video by Grand Canyon Council Boy Scouts)

Skills To Survive

Scoutmaster Nancy Welton founded Troop 4 in 2007. She’s here to see the boys off. 

"This is a new way to enjoy recreation," she said of the boys' hiking experience. 

"It’s totally different than those behaviors that got them in trouble — those choices that landed them into Department of Juvenile Corrections.”

As Jesse and Thomas set out on the hike, their slim silhouettes ascending the nearby foothills

“We strive to elevate them to the point where they can stand up for themselves," Welton said. "That’s our main hope — to give them those skills to survive out there."

She said Boy Scouting will always be there for them even if the boys lose their way.

Thomas Mayo and Jesse Etheridge
(Photo by Jimmy Jenkins - KJZZ)
Thomas Mayo (left) and Jesse Etheridge are members of Troop 4, the only Boy Scout troop in the country behind bars