The New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York requested an expedited order in district court today that would stop the Justice Center jail in Syracuse from subjecting children to solitary confinement. The request includes new evidence of abuses at the jail, and is part of a lawsuit filed in September by the NYCLU and LSCNY against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office and the Syracuse City School District. The lawsuit asserts that the Sheriff’s Office is detaining 16- and 17-year-olds, many of whom have mental illnesses, in near-complete isolation for weeks and months on end. The suit contends that the use of solitary confinement violates the U.S. Constitution and federal education laws.
Nearly three months after the lawsuit was filed, the Justice Center continues to throw children into solitary. The NYCLU and LSCNY have uncovered more harrowing evidence that children detained at the Justice Center are sexually harassed by adults, held in disgusting conditions, denied education and even pushed to contemplating suicide. Children are routinely sent to solitary for “offenses” such as speaking loudly, wearing the wrong shoes or uniforms or for other typical teenage behavior. If granted, the request would require that children at the Justice Center be taken out of solitary while the lawsuit moves forward.
“Twelve weeks after we filed our lawsuit, the Onondaga County Sheriff continues to punish children with a form of torture that can cause serious and life-long damage,” said Phil Desgranges, lead counsel on the case and staff attorney at the NYCLU. “For their safety and wellbeing these kids must be removed from solitary confinement and given the educational opportunities that all kids deserve.”
Today’s request to the court includes shocking new data about the Justice Center’s use of solitary confinement. Of the 131 juveniles admitted to the facility between October 19, 2015 and October 19, 2016 with stays lasting more than 6 days, 79 (60 percent) spent time in solitary. On average, the children spent 26 days in solitary. One teenager served more than 150 days in solitary, and another child was sentenced to 400 consecutive days in isolation. Since the lawsuit was filed on September 21, 23 children have been placed in solitary as of December 1.
“Unfortunately, it has been business as usual at the Justice Center since we filed our lawsuit. Children held there continue to be harmed every day by the use of solitary confinement, and leave the Justice Center in far worse condition than when they came in,” said Josh Cotter co-lead counsel on the case and a staff attorney at LSCNY. “In the past year children from our community have been punished with hundreds of days in solitary confinement and deprived of hundreds of days of educational instruction. This torturous practice must stop.”
Included in today’s filing are new stories of the children who experienced the trauma and injustice of solitary in jail firsthand.
- M.S. spent 45 days in solitary after he was attacked by another juvenile and tried to defend himself. M.S. is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but he was not given any medication for those disorders while he was in solitary. He was also repeatedly sexually harassed and threatened by adults incarcerated at the facility. “I have had a difficult time recovering from my time in the box,” M.S. said. “If I am in a closed room, I worry that I won’t be able to get out of it. I am scared that jail changed me forever.”
- Nashieka Lomack’s son T.S. has a long history of mental illness and became suicidal after he was put in solitary. She was not allowed to visit her son while he was on suicide watch. “I was worried that I would never see my son again,” Nashieka said. “I am confident that if I put my son in a closet for 23 hours a day and struck him in the face, I would be dealing with a family court case. Yet this jail brutalized my son and spit him out without offering him any meaningful help.”
- D.D. was placed in solitary for calling a guard “bald head.” D.D. was continually sexually harassed and tormented by incarcerated adults and was regularly mistreated by guards. “It makes me really angry how disrespectful the guards are to me,” D.D. said. “They say things to me like ‘suck my dick’ or ‘eat my ass.’ When I yell at them to stop they just laugh at me and say things like ‘no wonder your mother doesn't visit you.’ I feel helpless when the guards treat me like this.”
- Lorenda Brown asked Justice Center staff repeatedly to keep her son C.B. out of solitary because of his mental health conditions. Her pleas fell on deaf ears and her son was not given any medications. “It is clear the jail won’t do anything to keep my son out of harm’s way,” Lorenda said. “I worry about whether he will recover when he is released.”
The use of solitary confinement causes serious long-term harm to children, and offers no benefits to jail safety. The request for an injunction supports these assertions with opinions from experts. Dr. Louis Kraus, professor and chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that “all juveniles subjected to the Justice Center’s policy and practice of solitary confinement … are at a substantial risk of serious harm to their social psychological, and emotional development.” Professor Barry Alan Krisberg, who has conducted research on a range of juvenile justice corrections topics and has experience monitoring the phase out of solitary confinement for juveniles in other jurisdictions, found that “by treating juveniles like animals, the Justice Center is conveying the message that they are expected to behave like animals.” Warden Leander Parker runs the Youthful Offender Unit in the Mississippi Department of Corrections, where he never uses solitary confinement for juveniles because in his experience “it is safer this way.”
In addition to Desgranges and Cotter, lawyers on the case include Mariko Hirose, Mariana Kovel, Aadhithi Padmanabhan, Kevin Jason and Christopher Dunn from the NYCLU, Susan Young and Sam Young from LSCNY, and Aimee Krause Stewart from Sanford Heisler, LLP.