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Prisoner Education Guide

Settlement in HRDC Suit Against Solitary Confinement of Juveniles at Florida Jail

On November 15, 2018, the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, as well as the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Florida and the law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, announced a settlement in a lawsuit filed against the sheriff’s office in Palm Beach County.

In an unprecedented victory, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office agreed to effectively end solitary confinement for juvenile offenders at the county jail. Both the sheriff’s office and the Palm Beach County School Board will ensure that all juveniles receive access to appropriate educational services; they will receive schooling outside of their cells, and alternative behavior management policies will be employed in lieu of holding juveniles in solitary. The sheriff’s office and school board further agreed to independent monitoring to ensure compliance with the settlement agreement.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court on June 21, 2018 on behalf of all juvenile offenders who were held in solitary at the Palm Beach County Jail for upwards of 23 hours a day for weeks, months and in some cases over a year. Many of those juveniles suffered from mental health disabilities that were exacerbated by the conditions of their confinement and long-term isolation, and reported experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations as well as severe depression.

According to the complaint, the plaintiffs, none of whom had yet been convicted of a crime, were also denied proper educational services while held in solitary, receiving only packets of school work under their cell doors or having brief conversations with a teacher standing outside their cells. They were also denied other services and accommodations needed to address their educational needs, in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

On October 1, 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in the case to affirm and clarify the protections afforded to juveniles with disabilities under IDEA, stating, “Defendants are responsible for ensuring that eligible children with disabilities at the jail receive special education and related services. Defendants cannot avoid responsibility by claiming that the other is responsible.”

The attorneys representing the juvenile offenders said the settlement serves to underscore the unconstitutional nature of solitary confinement and will have an enormous impact on how such practices are employed by other jurisdictions both in Florida and throughout the nation.

“The extreme idleness, sensory deprivation, and lack of human interaction perpetuated by these solitary confinement policies leads to physical suffering and severe psychological damage, especially to children,” said Sabarish Neelakanta, HRDC’s general counsel and litigation director. “The widespread overuse of solitary confinement nationwide is causing lasting, irreparable harm to vulnerable populations, like the children held in Palm Beach County, and the evidence shows that these policies do not increase prison safety or deter criminal behavior,” he noted.

The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges have all called for the end of juvenile solitary confinement, leading several states and jurisdictions to implement changes to their housing and classification policies.

“Solitary confinement is an archaic practice that has been proven to be detrimental to those individuals held within the cell walls. Children are especially susceptible to the toxic nature of solitary confinement,” stated Melissa Duncan, supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County’s Education Advocacy Project. “We are pleased that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and School Board of Palm Beach County are willing to take steps needed to address the harmful conditions of solitary confinement and ensuing lack of access to appropriate education.”

“This settlement goes beyond just ending juvenile solitary confinement because it addresses the many issues that come along with it – including the denial of education and irrevocable harm that countless hours alone can have on a young person,” added Theodore J. Leopold, co-chair of Cohen Milstein’s Complex Tort Litigation and Consumer Protection practices. “We hope this settlement serves as a model in similar cases, in Florida and across the nation, and ends the inhumane policy of solitary confinement for juveniles.”

The terms of the settlement provide for injunctive relief at the Palm Beach County Jail, including: 

• All juveniles will be allowed outside their cells to participate in educational and other programming;
• All juveniles will have access to daily recreation and showers;
• The sheriff’s office will implement an alternative behavior management policy to minimize or eliminate the use of any kind of segregated housing, as well as expand the accommodations available to juveniles for educational services;
• The school board will be required to have a School Based Team meeting or Individual Education Plan meeting for each juvenile offender, as well as subsequent quarterly meetings. These meetings will address any challenges to the juveniles’ learning and result in a plan of intervention services to improve their academic progress; 
• Both the sheriff’s office and the school district will participate in weekly meetings to ensure that juveniles are receiving proper mental health care and access to educational services; and
• The sheriff’s office and school district agree that monitoring of the settlement agreement will include site visits, interviews and reviews of records concerning disciplinary reports, grievances, mental health services and educational services.

The settlement only covered injunctive relief in the case; the suit did not seek monetary damages. Attorney fees and costs will be determined at a later date. On November 16, 2018, the district court granted a joint motion to certify the class and to preliminarily approve the settlement. A fairness hearing is scheduled for March 5, 2019.

This was HRDC’s first conditions of confinement lawsuit. See: H.C. v. Bradshaw, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 9:18-cv-80810-WM. 

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Additional source: HRDC press release (Nov. 15, 2018)

 

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