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Justice Department Backs Lawsuit Challenging Solitary Confinement of Children

Syracuse solitary cell
The Justice Department today submitted a “statement of interest” in support of a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York to stop the Justice Center jail in Syracuse from subjecting 16- and 17-year-old children to solitary confinement. This statement of interest, which is a filing with the court in which the department makes its view of the law known, advances the Justice Department’s position that juveniles should never be placed in solitary confinement. The department has expressed its concerns to the Obama Administration, which last year discontinued the use of the practice for juveniles in federal prisons.

“The Department of Justice’s involvement shows that what is happening to children at the Justice Center is not simply a tragedy for Syracuse, but it is a national disgrace,” said NYCLU Executive Director, Donna Lieberman. “Children must be protected from the tortures of solitary confinement.”

The NYCLU and LSCNY filed a lawsuit in September against the Justice Center, where children locked up in solitary 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. The NYCLU and LSCNY requested an expedited order in district court last month that, if granted, would require the Justice Center to remove children from solitary. The Justice Department’s statement of interest in a lawsuit where the United States is not a party indicates the significant consequences that could arise from the decision in the NYCLU’s case.

“The Department of Justice’s historic involvement in this case makes a clear statement that nowhere in America can our society tolerate subjecting juveniles to solitary confinement,” said Phil Desgranges, lead counsel on the case and staff attorney at the NYCLU. “Putting vulnerable people, especially children, in solitary confinement is inhumane and unconstitutional. It’s long overdue for the Justice Center and correctional facilities around the country to end the use of solitary for juveniles.”

Under New York law, children can be housed in adult facilities starting at age 16. Children at the Justice Center are placed in solitary cells next to adults who threaten them with violence, sexual harassment or other abuse. As in many jails, the majority of those at the Justice Center, including children, have not been convicted of a crime, but are held because they are too poor to afford bail. Nonetheless, some wind up with more than a hundred days of solitary time during which they are not allowed to talk to other detainees, receive essentially no education or mental health care and are limited to one hour of “recreation” in small chain-linked filthy cages.

“The Justice Department, by filing a statement of interest today, weighed in with an unambiguous call to end the solitary confinement of children in this country,” said Josh Cotter, co-lead counsel on the case and staff attorney at LSCNY. “The Justice Department speaks with the voice of authority on this issue, as the federal government has already ended solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal prison system. Syracuse is one of the last places in the country where this inhumane practice continues, and for the good of our community’s children, it must end here too.”

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