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Systemic Constitutional Violations at Ohio Juvenile Facilities Leads to Settlement in Class Action; Guards Attempt to Block Relief

Systemic Constitutional Violations at Ohio Juvenile Facilities Leads to Settlement in Class Action; Guards Attempt to Block Relief

by Brandon Sample

The Ohio Department of Youth Services (ODYS) has agreed to settle a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of all juvenile offenders incarcerated in the ODYS.

Problems with the Ohio juvenile detention system first came to light in 2003 after 14 guards at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility (Scioto) were indicted for sex abuse and violence against minors at Scioto. Four guards were convicted or pled guilty to sexual abuse while another pled guilty to assault after slapping and punching a youth.
In December 2004, S.H. and other incarcerated minors at Scioto sued ODYS on behalf of all minors at Scioto. The Plaintiffs alleged that they were subjected to grossly unconstitutional conditions of confinement ranging from inadequate medical health care to endemic violence. For instance, the complaint alleged that Scioto staff physically and sexually abused minors at Scioto and arbitrarily placed them in isolation as punishment.

In March of 2005, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) opened an investigation into the Scioto prison. On May 7, 2007, the DOJ published its findings: Scioto’s juvenile prisoners suffered “significant constitutional deficiencies regarding the use of physical force, grievance investigation, processing, and use of seclusion.” The report also found that the minors had suffered “harm or risk of harm from constitutional deficiencies as to [safety]; certain discrete elements of medical care; grievances; and special education services.”

The DOJ’s findings reinvigorated settlement negotiations between the parties. And the case was expanded to cover all ODYS facilities.

As a predicate to final settlement negotiations, the parties agreed to commission an independent fact-finding team to conduct a comprehensive investigation of all ODYS facilities.

The investigation resulted in a report, issued some six months later, that was quite damning. The report concluded that ODYS facilities are “overcrowded, understaffed, and underserved in such vital areas as safety, education, mental health treatment, and rehabilitative programming.” And the report noted that “excessive force and the excessive use of isolation, some of it extraordinarily prolonged, is endemic to the ODYS system.”

The report blamed the systemic violence on Juvenile Corrections Officers (JCOs) throughout the ODYS that are poorly trained, psychologically ill-equipped for their job, and lack effective oversight. The JCOs, according to the report, acted “more like prison guards (or police officers) than trained partners in a shared rehabilitative effort.”

The report recommended sweeping changes to the ODYS to correct these and other unconstitutional conditions ranging from inadequate mental health and dental care, to the provision of educational opportunities.

For instance, the report called for the down-sizing of ODYS facilities in favor of smaller community based facilities that house up to 24 juveniles in order to provide an environment that is geared more towards rehabilitation; an overhaul of the training, responsibilities, and supervision of JCOs, including the replacement of “cops” with “counselors”; and implementation of structural reforms to ensure the provision of adequate health care, education, access to the courts, and a safe, violence free, living environment for all juveniles in ODYS facilities.

Two weeks before the parties were about to finalize a settlement in the case that adopted the sweeping reforms suggested by the report, the JCO’s union, the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OSCEA), sought to intervene into the case arguing that the settlement, if adopted, would violate its Collective Bargaining Agreement with the State of Ohio. The court, however, rejected the OSCEA’s “eleventh hour” attempt to block the settlement.

“These children are subject to physical and sexual abuse by their would-be guardians, who have inculcated the state institutions with a culture of violence,” the court wrote. “These children lack adequate health care and education. ODYS staff lack adequate training and supervision. In some cases they are unqualified. The[se] dire conditions weigh against delay and against an intervention that would obstruct a solution to the systemic deprivation of constitutional rights.”

The final settlement in the case was entered May 21, 2008. The Plaintiffs were represented by Alphonse Gerhardstein, Kimberly Brooks Tandy, Jennifer Kinsley, Maria Ramiu, and David Singleton. The court awarded the plaintiffs $219,505.27 in fees at the Prison Litigation Reform Act rate of $169.50 per hour. See: S.W. v. Strickrath, US DC SD OH, Case No. 2:04-CV-1206.

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Related legal case

S.W. v. Strickrath