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NO EASY ANSWERS TO TEEN'S SUICIDE IN HOLDING CENTER

CHRISTIAN JOHNS hanged himself last week. He took the laces off his sneakers, wrapped them around his neck and tied them to a bar of his cell in the Erie County Holding Center.

He was 18 years old and a petty thief. He was arrested this last time for stealing an old computer worth maybe a few hundred bucks.

He was one of a legion of lost kids who grow up without the care they need. You plant a sapling and don't give it enough sun or water, it will grow bent and damaged. It's the same with a child.

Christian Johns' mother, Kathy Harbaugh, is a nice woman. I met her the other day. She came of age in the days of Woodstock and free love, named her daughter Lorien after a character in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," the hippie bible. She kicked a drug problem a dozen years ago.

She says the boy's father was an alcoholic whom she divorced 14 years ago and has come and gone since.

"Christian had talked about joining the Army," she said, sitting at the kitchen table of their neat West Side home. "He needed powerful male role models."

Despite his troubles, Christian was a friendly kid who wouldn't harm anyone. In fact, he took the rap for two friends in the computer heist. He recently took his GED test and had just started a job with a cleaning company.

When a young man dies with so much life ahead of him, you have to ask: Could it have been prevented? Did the system somehow fail? Who, indeed, is to blame?

Kathy Harbaugh wonders why the guards didn't take Christian's sneaker laces from him. He was arrested a week ago Sunday -- his fourth arrest. He was looking at jail time.

She talked to him on the phone Monday. She told him mommy wouldn't be bailing him out, he'd have to stay in jail until his court hearing. He was sobbing on the phone. His father came down hard when they spoke last Wednesday. A few hours later, Christian took the laces from his sneakers and wrapped them around his neck.

"He was very frightened when I talked with him," said Ms. Harbaugh.

Yet he didn't ask for a counselor or seem distraught to the guards.

"I was told he looked a little flushed after talking on the phone, that's all," said McCarthy Gipson, the Holding Center superintendent. "People tend to conceal their emotions here."

Fellow inmates don't go warm and fuzzy when somebody bursts into tears. And that wasn't how Christian was anyway.

"He wouldn't talk to anyone about what he was feeling," said Lorien, his sister.

"He could have asked for a counselor," said Gipson. "In hindsight, we wish we'd been mind readers."

There are more than 700 inmates in the Holding Center. Gipson said an average of six or seven a year try to kill themselves. One or two usually succeed.

You could put a video camera in every cell, but the ACLU would file an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit quicker than you could say William Kunstler.

I can't see how the system could have done much differently. You've got a kid in for a petty crime who works hard not to show emotion. The way he acted didn't set off any bells. Even if they'd taken his sneakers, he could've used a bedsheet or a shirt sleeve.

Chances are Christian wouldn't have been so lost if, over the years, night after night and day after day, he'd gotten the love and care he needed at home.

It's almost as definitive as a mathematical equation: Kids who come from strong homes grow up straight. Ones from broken ones are somehow damaged, incomplete. Almost all of the time.

Even so, others had it worse than Christian Johns and made it through. He still lived at home, in a decent neighborhood. His mother tried. His sister, Lorien, went through a couple of stints in drug rehab. Now 19, she is clear-eyed and well-spoken. When a visitor arrives, she offers a hand and looks him straight in the eye.

From what his mother and sister say, the young man was a mix of disillusionment and sensitivity. Maybe a lethal mix. Soft enough to despair, messed up enough to do something dumb. Who knows what went through his mind in that cell as its grim reality closed in around him.

I don't think the guards and the system are to blame. Some of these kids make it, some don't. I know that's not profound. It's not the easy answer. It's just the closest I can get to any kind of truth about this.

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