The New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York announced a settlement with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office today that ends the routine practice of 23-hour-a-day isolation of juveniles at the Justice Center jail in Syracuse. The settlement is the result of a lawsuit filed by the NYCLU and LSCNY last year.
Children aged 16 and 17, many of whom have mental illnesses, had been kept in solitary confinement for months at a time. Many children exhibited symptoms of suicidal thinking, and jail officials deliberately ignored warnings about children’s vulnerabilities, returning juveniles to solitary even after being placed on suicide watch for brief periods. Solitary confinement can cause psychosis, trauma, depression and self-harm.
“Today begins a new and more hopeful chapter for children at the Justice Center in Syracuse,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “This settlement ensures that kids can be kids at the Justice Center, and are no longer discarded and abused by officials during an especially formative and vulnerable time in their lives. These teenagers will now receive the education and counseling that any child deserves.”
The settlement is expected to last through October 2019 and is subject to court approval. Under its terms, 16- and 17-year-olds will no longer be housed in the “box” and be deprived of education and counseling. Children will be confined to their cells only when there is an imminent safety threat that less restrictive measures cannot adequately resolve. In such cases, this confinement will last for only the minimum time necessary to resolve an imminent safety threat.
According to the settlement, which was also reached with the Syracuse City School district, the Justice Center must also provide access to educational instruction, special education services and an incentive program that encourages positive behavior. Children will receive individualized plans that identify and accommodate special needs, will receive mental health counseling and will be supervised by a multi-disciplinary team trained to work with juveniles.
“This settlement agreement will end, once and for all, the Onondaga County Justice Center’s cruel and unconstitutional practice of punishing juveniles with solitary confinement,” said Josh Cotter, a staff attorney at Legal Services of Central New York and co-counsel on the case. “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.”
As in many jails, most of the children at the Justice Center have not been convicted of a crime and are held because they are too poor to afford bail. Between October of 2015 and September 2016, when the lawsuit was filed, the sheriff placed at least 86 children in solitary confinement more than 250 times, forcing children to spend 23 hours a day locked in tiny cells, sometimes with feces and urine covering the floor. Children routinely spent more than one hundred days in solitary, often for “offenses” such as speaking loudly or wearing the wrong shoes.
While in solitary, children at the Justice Center were not allowed to talk to other detainees, received essentially no education or mental health care and were limited to one hour of “recreation” in small filthy cages. Juveniles were also placed next to adults who sexually harassed them and young girls were watched by adult male guards as they were forced to shower without a curtain.
"This settlement will end the isolation, abuse, and torment inflicted on teenagers for trivial misbehavior,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney and lead counsel on the case Phil Desgranges. “We are committed to making sure that teenagers at the Justice Center and other jails throughout the state are not subjected to such cruelty.”
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of all juveniles held in solitary at the Justice Center, led by six Black and Latino plaintiffs, ages 16 and 17. The named juvenile plaintiffs had the following reactions to the settlement:
- “It felt horrible to be in the box,” said V.W., who spent at least 59 days in isolation and time in the mental health unit for people who have additional needs after spending time in solitary. “It means a lot to me that no kid in the Justice Center will ever go to the box again.”
- “The settlement will make the jail better than it was when I was there,” said M.R. “If I was still at the Justice Center, I would do the last 6 months of my sentence in peace.” M.R. spent over 160 days in isolation for misbehavior as minor as talking out of his door.
- “It will be way better now at the jail than when I was there,” said J.P. “Deputies used to lock you in your cell for not making your bed. Now, deputies will have to have serious reasons.” J.P. spent over two weeks in isolation, in part for minor misbehavior like talking out of his door.
NYCLU staff who worked on the case with Desgranges include Molly Kovel, Mariko Hirose, Aadhithi Padmanabhan, Kevin Jason, Christopher Dunn, Noah Breslau, Maria Rafael, Michelle Shames and Yusuf Abdul-Qadir. Legal Services of Central New York staff who worked on the case with Cotter included Susan Young and Samuel Young, with contributions from Aimee Krause Stewart of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.