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$400,000 Settlement in New Jersey Juvenile Solitary Confinement Suit

$400,000 Settlement in New Jersey Juvenile Solitary Confinement Suit

by Derek Gilna

In December 2013, the Juvenile Law Center, a non-profit public interest law firm based in Philadelphia, won a $400,000 settlement on behalf of two adolescents who spent months in solitary confinement in New Jersey’s juvenile justice system. Advocates hoped the settlement would help bring an end to solitary for juveniles in the state. The juvenile justice system “is supposed to rehabilitate kids. And there’s a ton of evidence that isolation harms kids,” noted Prof. Sandra Simkins, director of the Children’s Justice Clinic at Rutgers School of Law.

One of the youths who filed the federal lawsuit, Troy Donini, was diagnosed as mentally ill when he entered New Jersey’s juvenile justice system in February 2009, a month before his 16th birthday. Part of his diagnosis was post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and psychosis according to court filings, which stated Troy was kept in isolation for at least 178 of the 225 days he was in the juvenile system. That included being locked up for 22 consecutive days when he was only allowed out for showers. The other plaintiff in the case, O’Neill Santiago, 15, spent 50 days in solitary confinement.

The lawsuit alleged that while Troy was in almost continuous isolation he was not allowed any personal property and hallucinated that a “lady” told him to hurt himself. He exhibited other signs of mental illness, including self-mutilation and injuries inflicted by banging his head against a wall.

“Children can live in rooms of all sizes. They can have bedrooms of all sizes. I think the issue is this was a barren cell, a concrete slab to sleep on,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center. “There’s no question there were occasions when he had no mattress, no blankets or sheets.”

The complaint alleged that Troy was “confined to a seven-foot-by-seven-foot cement cell ... [his] movement ... so restricted that [he was] not allowed to take a walk or engage in any type of recreation or exercise ... not allowed to have educational or other materials in the isolation cell, nor ... permitted to have any books in the isolation cell.”

The lawsuit cited a 1999 study which found that “isolation exacerbates mental health problems, including suicidal ideation, and that these concerns are particularly acute for minors,” noting that “rates of suicidal behavior appeared to be higher for youth who were isolated from their peers or assigned to single room housing.”

“The use of extended isolation as a method of behavior control, for example, is an import from the adult system that has proven both harmful and counterproductive when applied to juveniles,” the study said. “It too often leads to increased incidents of depression and self-mutilation among isolated juveniles, while also exacerbating their behavior problems. We know that the use of prolonged isolation leads to increased, not decreased, acting out, particularly among juveniles with mental illness.”

New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice Commission will pay half the $400,000 settlement, while the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey will pay the other half. Troy received $130,000 while $20,000 was paid to O’Neill’s estate, as he was murdered while the case was pending. The remaining $250,000 went to attorney fees and costs. Following the settlement, the case was dismissed by stipulation in February 2014. See: Troy D. and O’Neill S. v. Mickens, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 1:10-cv-02902-JEI-AMD.

In June 2015, the New Jersey legislature voted to approve a bill (S2003) that, among other provisions, limits solitary confinement to no more than two consecutive days for juveniles under 15 years old, to three consecutive days for those up to age 18 and to no more than five consecutive days for those 18 or older. Further, juveniles shall not be held in solitary for more than 10 total days in a calendar month, and “shall continue to receive health, mental health, and educational services.” The bill awaits action by the governor’s office.

At least 20 states have banned or restricted solitary confinement for juveniles, including Ohio, Mississippi and, most recently, Illinois in May 2015. Some cities have also banned the practice, such as New York City. [See: PLN, July 2015, p.21]. At least nine states have no limits on how long juvenile offenders can be held in solitary.

Additional sources:,, New York Times,


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Related legal case

Troy D. and O’Neill S. v. Mickens