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PARIS, Texas — The letter propped up inside Joshua Keith Beasley Jr.’s casket was from his father. It was unopened. By the time it arrived at the Texas juvenile detention facility where it had been mailed, Joshua had already been transferred to an adult facility. He had just turned 16.
The state of Texas took control of Joshua’s life in 2018, when he was 11 and was incarcerated for kicking a school safety officer. (The Texas Tribune reported on Joshua’s story last year, calling him “Keith” because he was a minor. His full name is being used here at his mother’s request.)
There was a clear pattern captured in the more than 1,000 pages of suicide risk assessments performed during the almost five years Joshua was in the custody of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. It started in 2018, with him repeatedly stating that he wanted to kill himself. Then there was the tying of ligatures made of ripped shirts, underwear or sheets. According to TJJD records, he did this at least 50 times, sometimes multiple times in a single week.
After he was charged last year with spitting on and hitting a TJJD staff member, a judge ruled that Joshua should serve an additional five-year sentence in Texas’ adult carceral system.
Joshua’s mother, Amnisty Freelen, fought to keep her son from being transferred. She begged Joshua’s public defenders to ask the court to consider his history of self-harm. She feared what would happen to her son in an adult facility. But ultimately, Joshua was moved to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Travis County State Jail in September 2022.
Almost six months to the day later, on March 24, Joshua died at TDCJ’s Wayne Scott Unit. The cause of death, according to the TDCJ Office of the Inspector General, was suicide.
In the weeks since Joshua’s death, Freelen has been disoriented by overwhelming grief and rage. Freelen does not quite believe her son died by suicide. But either way, she says, the state of Texas killed him.
“They didn’t look at the whole situation. They didn’t try to fix the brokenness,” she said. “They just broke him more.”
At the time of his death, Joshua was one of two youth under age 18 out of a total population of 500 at the Wayne Scott Unit.
Youth in adult prisons have historically been exposed to more physical and sexual violence than adult prisoners — and spend more time in solitary confinement, often placed there to separate them from adults. Children in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to die by suicide than those in juvenile facilities, according to a 2018 report by Neelum Arya, policy director at FREEAMERICA.
A TJJD spokesperson did not answer specific questions regarding Joshua, but said in a statement: “TJJD works diligently on multiple fronts to help the youth committed to us find success and return to their communities as soon as possible, with a goal of furthering their wellbeing and community safety through youth rehabilitation … No youth is transferred to TDCJ institutions without a court proceeding, in which the judge can order a transfer to TDCJ or a return to TJJD. Judges have the youth’s full file available, so they can take into account their behavior, mental health status and record of achievements while at TJJD.”
One of Joshua’s public defenders, Justin Fohn, said it can be hard to determine what to do in cases like Joshua’s, where what the child really needs is mental health care, not incarceration.
“I don’t know that the system had any other place for him,” Fohn said. “He was at TJJD — that wasn’t a good place. There’s a nationwide issue with the criminal justice system in that it’s not set up to house people that have disabilities like that. We always look at every option available to us and sometimes it comes down to there aren’t any other options available.”
The judge in Joshua’s case, Gary Coley Jr., did not respond to requests for comment, but Jack Choate, executive director of TJJD’s special prosecution unit, said that transfers are requested only after an extensive evaluation and based on what’s best for the child.
“You’ve got medical professionals, you’ve got judges, you’ve got the daily staff that interact with a juvenile. There’s a lot of people involved in trying to paint this picture,” he said. “The prosecutor and the defense attorney are both working toward what’s in the best interest of the kid.”
This is what happened at every stage of Joshua’s involvement with the legal and carceral system — prosecutors, public defenders, corrections staff and judges all said they were acting in his best interest. One of Joshua’s sentencing documents states: “The Court finds that the best interest of the Respondent and the community will be served by placing the Respondent outside his home and committing the Respondent to the care, custody, and control of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. The Court finds that it would be contrary to the welfare of the child and his family for the youth to be returned to his home.”
But that was all Joshua seemed to long for while he was incarcerated — to go home.
“Just laying as low as possible”
TJJD records show that Joshua often harmed himself when he was not allowed to communicate with his parents, or around his birthday, Thanksgiving and other holidays when he would have been with family had he been free. But TJJD staff also wrote that Joshua was harming himself in order to get his way: “Joshua generally self-harms due to poor frustration tolerance, feeling as if engaging in self-harm is an appropriate way to get his needs met.”
Staff often had to cut ligatures from around Joshua’s neck, sometimes not getting to him until his face had turned red or gray and he was struggling to breathe. Other youth who have been incarcerated in TJJD facilities said that many of the children tied ligatures around their necks and engaged in other forms of self-harm either out of anger or to get attention. Hurting oneself was the only way to get the staff to show any kind of care.
Blake Crenshaw met Joshua when both were incarcerated in a TJJD facility three years ago, and saw firsthand the cycle of violence and self-harm in which Joshua seemed trapped. Crenshaw and Joshua bonded because both were from the small Texas town of Paris and knew some of the same people. But Crenshaw, 19, also saw Joshua as a little brother and felt the need to protect him. At the time, Joshua was only 13 and most of the other children were in their late teens.
“Joshua was so young, so obviously, he was a target for a lot of things,” Crenshaw said.
Crenshaw said the youths in the facility often acted out because of the way they were treated by staff. He said staff would lock them in their cells for hours on end and that the long confinement impacted their mental health. But it was the verbal abuse in particular that would often set Joshua off.
“[The staff] are constantly beating you down, beating you down, telling you you’re nothing. You’re nothing but a criminal. You’re never going to get out of there,” Crenshaw said. “And with someone like Joshua, he’s so young. He doesn’t have the maturity level to process everything that’s going on in his head. All he’s thinking is, ‘Mad, mad, mad, mad, mad!’”
Crenshaw said that the taunting would often lead Joshua to react by mouthing off, spitting or throwing an object. The staff would then quickly restrain him.
“I’d watch Joshua catch small attitudes or get in small arguments. With a kid that young, you can’t expect a kid who’s already in jail away from his family to just be perfect. And he wasn’t perfect,” said Crenshaw. “[Staff] would give him like two warnings. Then they’d just be through with him. Multiple staff would take him, slam him on the ground, pepper spray him, handcuff him, shackle him and they would take him to the security pod.”
The Tribune reviewed Joshua’s records from TJJD that document him being pepper sprayed and restrained in ways that Crenshaw described. TJJD did not respond to questions that were specifically about the alleged mistreatment that Joshua suffered at the hands of its staff.
Crenshaw said he didn’t see the need for things to escalate to that point and that he was often able to pacify Joshua on the occasions when staff let him intervene. He said the trick was to speak to Joshua gently rather than yelling at him. He would tell Joshua to think about his little brother and to focus on staying calm so that he could go home.
“He used to always tell me that he wanted to be the best role model for his little brother,” Crenshaw said. “He would always think about him and his mom and about going home. And every time I would tell him that, it would calm him down and he would just look at me and give me this little smile, every time.”
At first, it looked like being transferred to TDCJ might have been a way for Joshua to return home sooner, as he went up for parole a few weeks after he was sent to the Travis jail. One of Joshua’s attorneys, Samuel Martinez, who like many others in this article would not speak about Joshua specifically due to his age, said that accepting the transfer is in some ways like taking a plea deal. A child might face more time, he said, if they insist on going to trial and then are found guilty.
“A lot of times some of these kids haven’t progressed at all. They probably could end up spending a longer period of time in TJJD than if they transfer,” he said. “I’ve represented kids where we do a transfer and within a few months they’re already looking at getting paroled. Obviously, that doesn’t happen to every child, but it’s sometimes a quicker release out.”
Freelen wanted her son to go to trial because she felt it would be a way to introduce evidence showing that TJJD staff were abusing Joshua, which would cause him to react violently. She thought it would also be a way to have his mental health record properly considered so that he could get the treatment he so clearly needed.
But Freelen says Martinez refused to speak with her and insisted that Joshua would make his own decisions. In one email exchange, when Freelen asked what would happen if she, as Joshua’s legal guardian, refused to sign court documents regarding the transfer, Martinez wrote a single sentence response: “Then I sign as his guardian ad litem,” which he did.
Going before the parole board gave Joshua hope. He started focusing on going to classes, making music with the two other teens in his pod at the Travis jail and trying to stay out of trouble.
In a message sent to this reporter on Nov. 2, he wrote: “I been good just laying as low as possible!! I been going to school for my GED and doing groups with my counselor!! I been talking to my mama a lot it been going good!!”
But then, about two weeks later, he sent a message to say he’d messed up: “I was doing good until wensday I had got in it with a officer he got in my face and called me a little bitch so I throw coffee at him and it did hit him and then he punched me in my face so I started punching him multiple times in his face but other than that slip up I been great taking GED classes and doing groups with my case manager but I just wonted to let you know how I was and what I done on wensday!!”
On Dec. 1, 2022, Joshua was denied parole because, the board stated, “The record indicates that the offender has repeatedly committed criminal episodes that indicate a predisposition to commit criminal acts upon release.”
Joshua started to self-harm again, leading to his transfer to the Wayne Scott Unit, a psychiatric facility. People incarcerated at Wayne Scott are generally placed in cells by themselves, and staff are supposed to check on them every 15 minutes. A TDCJ spokesperson said that each day, “Inmates have 1 hour for recreation (optional) and 1 hour (or more) for group therapy.”
Freelen said that once Joshua was transferred, she was unable to speak with him by phone regularly and hadn’t talked with him for about 30 days when he died. She said when she called the facility, someone told her that Joshua didn’t have easy access to phones because he needed to remain separated from the incarcerated adults, the implication being that the phones were in a part of the facility where he would have been around them.
When Freelen got a call from an unknown number around 8:30 p.m. March 24, she initially thought, based on the caller ID, that it was Joshua finally calling her. She answered the phone, “Hello, son.” But it was the warden, Kenneth Putnam, calling to tell her that Joshua had been found unresponsive in his cell. Freelen said she became so hysterical that her husband had to take the phone and then could not clearly hear the rest of what was said.
“I felt it inside my body, like something was being ripped or torn completely out of me,” Freelen said. “And I still feel it in my body. I feel like my whole body is disintegrating.”
News of Joshua’s death was equally devastating for Crenshaw, who said that he had spoken with Joshua a few weeks before his death and that Joshua had appeared to be more focused and motivated than ever before.
Crenshaw and Joshua had initially had the same release date. “We were both supposed to get out December 3rd , and Joshua ended up dying in there,” Crenshaw said. “It just broke me down. It’s not fair. Like he deserved to get a second chance to come home. He was just a kid. He didn’t deserve that.”
Freelen has not been able to get much information about her son’s death, and it has added to her torment.
“It’s the unknowns and the not knowing. And the wondering if we will ever know exactly what happened in that single cell,” she said.
According to a TDCJ spokesperson, there is an ongoing investigation into Joshua’s death. The medical examiner has not yet released Joshua’s autopsy but determined that the death was a suicide. Sometime in the two weeks after Joshua’s death, the warden at Wayne Scott Unit, Putnam, left TDCJ. A TDCJ spokesperson said, “The warden’s retirement was already scheduled and unrelated to the incident.”
This, according to Joshua’s friends, is what might have led to his death. Those who were incarcerated with Joshua said that he did not want to die, and one suggested that he might have assumed that staff at the Wayne Scott Unit would have been monitoring him as closely as he had been at TJJD and would have arrived in time to remove the ligature. In TJJD, staff often checked on Joshua as frequently as every three minutes, giving them enough time to save him.
Freelen wanted to get an independent autopsy done but could not afford the $3,500 it would have cost. At Joshua’s funeral, on April 1, she unbuttoned Joshua’s shirt to examine his neck herself. She photographed several small scars that she felt looked like they’d been left by fingernails, a sign of Joshua struggling to remove the ligature and an indication that he’d wanted to live.
The Living Word Pentecostal Church in Paris, Texas, where the funeral was held, was packed with family going back many generations and friends, including Crenshaw, who, along with two other friends who had spent time with Joshua in TJJD, were pallbearers.
Joshua’s casket was a bright cherry red, as was his shirt, because it was his favorite color.
For most of the service, Joshua’s father, Joshua Beasley Sr., sat bent over in front of the casket, hands clasped, in a posture of abject anguish.
Beasley Sr. has been incarcerated since March 2022 and had to get special permission to write his son the letter that was placed in Joshua’s casket. Beasley Sr. was released from prison for a few hours, escorted by three TDCJ staff, to attend the funeral. It has been hard for him to properly process and grieve while in prison: “It’s already hard dealing with [things] in a place like this, so emotions just make things harder,” he wrote in a message to this reporter. “To be honest my mind don’t stop spinning. I feel so guilty for not being able to be there for him like I should of been.”
Joshua was buried in Bogota, about half an hour from Paris, in the corner of a lot next to several members of his mother’s extended family. After the casket was lowered, Freelen threw a white rose in the grave and lingered for a moment.
“Go and rest now, baby,” she said.
Freelen has visited Joshua often in the days since, going to make sure the gravesite hadn’t been damaged after a recent storm and having a picnic with her son in which she sat on a blanket, eating a burger and fries. She tells him how much she loves him and that she’s sorry for the ways in which she failed him. It’s the first time in many years that she’s been able to have these kinds of private conversations with him.
It is Freelen’s faith that sustains her, and she finds some comfort in her belief that Joshua is with God.
“No more handcuffs, no more shackles, no more wounds and no more scars. No more hate in his life,” she said. “He is no longer in a single cell suffering and being tortured. He’s free.”
Lisa Armstrong is an Oakland, California-based freelance journalist and a professor at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. If you have feedback related to this story, email email@example.com.
This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
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