A U.S. District Court Judge today ordered the Justice Center jail in Syracuse, New York to immediately stop putting children in isolation for 23 hours a day. Judge David Hurd granted a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York to stop the Justice Center from subjecting 16- and 17-year-old children to solitary confinement, and that any new form of punishment used by the jail while the case proceeds must include meaningful social interaction with others and cannot harm the psychological health of children. This is a landmark case involving juveniles in an adult jail because the court found that the use of solitary confinement for children violates or is substantially likely to violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
“Solitary confinement for children is torture and causes life-long damage,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director at the NYCLU. “We are thrilled the children at the Justice Center will be removed from solitary for their safety and wellbeing.”
The NYCLU and LSCNY filed the lawsuit in September against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office for locking up children ages 16 and 17, many of whom are mentally ill, in near-complete isolation in solitary confinement for months at a time. The children at the Justice Center are sexually harassed by adults, housed in disgusting conditions, denied education and, in some cases, pushed to contemplating suicide. Children were routinely sent to solitary for “offenses” such as speaking loudly or wearing the wrong shoes.
“Putting children in solitary is a grave injustice,” said Phil Desgranges, staff attorney at the NYCLU and lead counsel on the case. “This decision makes clear that locking children in isolation endangers their mental health and is an unacceptable practice.”
“We are ecstatic with Judge Hurd’s decision which will stop this torturous practice for the duration of our lawsuit,” said Josh Cotter, co-counsel on the case and a staff attorney at Legal Services of Central New York. “It is our hope that the Sheriff’s Office and school district will now work with us to develop a long term solution to this problem.”
The lawsuit argues the district is violating the children’s right to an education while they are locked up at the Justice Center. In order to grant the injunction, the judge had to find that the plaintiffs were substantially likely to win their case. Judge Hurd also denied the Onondaga School District’s request to be dismissed from the case.
Working on this case from the NYCLU with Desgranges are Mariko Hirose, Molly Kovel, Aadhithi Padmanabhan, Kevin Jason, Christopher Dunn, Noah Breslau, Maria Rafael, Michelle Shames and Yusuf Abdul-Qadir; from Legal Services of Central New York with Cotter are Susan Young and Samuel Young; and Aimee Krause Stewart from Sanford Heisler LLP.