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New York Jail Agrees to End Solitary Confinement of Juveniles

by Derek Gilna and Matt Clarke

Jail officials in Syracuse, New York have agreed to end solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old juvenile offenders held at the Onondaga County Justice Center under the terms of a June 26, 2017 settlement that ended a federal class-action suit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

In its complaint, the NYCLU wrote that “[d]espite an emerging consensus that solitary confinement places juveniles at risk of serious harm – including suicide, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder – and despite a national abandonment of solitary confinement of juveniles, the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office has embraced the frequent and arbitrary use of solitary confinement.” The complaint argued that the “Defendants have violated and continue to violate the Plaintiffs’ rights under the Eighth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed the district court entered an order granting class-action status, and a week later, on February 22, 2017, granted a preliminary injunction against the defendants. The injunction required the jail to stop imposing 23-hour-a-day disciplinary isolation on juvenile offenders, and to provide a minimum of 15 hours per week of educational instruction and special education courses to those who qualify for them.

The court noted witnesses had testified that the jail “routinely imposes solitary confinement regardless of the juvenile’s mental health history and even for minor misbehavior expected of juveniles, such as yelling or refusing to stop talking. In fact, the Jail appears to rely primarily on isolation as the preferred method of discipline, with lesser sanctions being imposed in addition to, rather than in lieu of, solitary confinement.”

Between October 19, 2015 and October 19, 2016, 79 of the 131 juveniles held at the jail were placed in solitary confinement at least once and 44% served at least 20 days in solitary. Of the juveniles incarcerated for longer than the 59-day average, 96% had been punished with solitary confinement.

The juveniles’ experience in solitary included sensory deprivation in that they were prohibited from talking to other prisoners and denied radios or televisions. They were also denied meaningful mental health treatment or educational classes. Teachers prepared woefully inadequate “cell packets” of newspaper clippings and questions intended to replace missed classes, but they were often not delivered by jail staff. Staff also refused to provide grievance forms or threw completed forms away instead of turning them in. Therefore, the district court exempted the plaintiffs from the usual requirement of having to exhaust administrative remedies.

Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the “Sheriff’s Office shall not place any juvenile in a segregated housing unit.... No juvenile may be locked in a closed cell for disciplinary purposes unless the juvenile poses an imminent threat to the safety and security of the facility and less restrictive measures will not adequately address the threat. Such confinement shall be for the minimum period of time necessary to resolve the threat.” Further, “No juvenile shall be locked in a closed cell ... for refusing to attend educational instruction.”

The settlement also required that a written incident report be created documenting “the imminent threat to the safety and security of the facility and any less-restrictive measures that were used before confinement.” Mental health employees will be advised when “a juvenile is confined to their cell ... so that mental health staff (those trained in mediation and crisis intervention) may as soon as practicable employ mediation or crisis intervention techniques to resolve the threat, provided that the mental health staff is available to do so and deem such techniques to be appropriate.”

Regardless of their type of confinement, juveniles will still be permitted “two hours of recreation per day, one shower per day, legal and non-legal visits, the education and special education and related services to which they are entitled under the law, and access to any other services to which they are entitled under the law,” and allowed to communicate with other prisoners and eat meals outside their cells unless their participation would “pose a threat to the safety and security of the facility.”

The settlement agreement also provided for plaintiffs’ counsel to have access to the facility for the purposes of monitoring compliance, and required the defendants to no longer house juvenile offenders at the jail by October 1, 2019. If the defendants comply with the latter provision the settlement would expire on that date, but it can be extended if they do not. The district court granted final approval of the agreement on August 28, 2017.

In addition to the NYCLU, the juveniles were represented by Legal Services of Central New York and Washington, D.C. attorney Aimee Krause Stewart. See: V.W. v. Conway, U.S.D.C. (N.D. NY), Case No. 9:16-cv-01150-DNH-DEP.

According to Legal Services of Central New York staff attorney Josh Cotter, “Thanks to the settlement agreement, Syracuse’s children who are held at the Justice Center will no longer be subject to lengthy periods of complete isolation, and will instead have more programming and educational options available to aid in their transition back into the community.”  

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Related legal case

V.W. v. Conway