Southern Poverty Law Center Files Lawsuit Against Polk County Sheriff to End Abuse of Children at Jail

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal lawsuit against Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd today for regularly subjecting children held at the county’s adult jail to abuse, neglect and violence - including the placement of children in a cage for punishment.

The lawsuit comes after Florida lawmakers last spring passed SB 2112, which allows counties to place children as young as eight years old in adult jails.

The class-action lawsuit describes how guards brutalize children by spraying them with harsh chemicals for even minor infractions, such as taking too long to get dressed. Children also are subjected to physical and verbal abuse by guards, including a recent incident where a guard twisted a teenager's arm behind his back and threatened to break it. The lawsuit also describes how the sheriff fails to provide these youth with adequate educational and rehabilitative services.

"This lawsuit illustrates that children simply do not belong in adult jails," said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the SPLC's Florida office.

"Sheriff Grady Judd promised to save tax money by housing children in the county's adult jail. But any savings he has generated has come at the children's expense," Galloni said. "It's easy to run a jail on the cheap when you scrimp on staffing, create abusive conditions and deny children the services to which they are entitled under federal law."

Judd began housing children at the facility in October 2011, shortly after state legislation was passed that allows county commissions to place children charged as juveniles in adult jails. Though more than 75 percent of the youth arrested in Polk County are charged only with misdemeanors or probation violations, the sheriff has housed over 100 children, some as young as eight years old, in the Polk County Jail. Guards have no expertise on how to work with children.

Polk County is the only county in Florida so far to detain youth charged as juveniles under jail standards rather than Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) standards. Judd's treatment of children in his care exemplifies how SB 2112 has reversed more than 40 years of juvenile justice efforts to create protections for children that adult jails cannot provide.

"Rather than look after these kids, the guards at the jail call the children names, let them get into fights, lock them up in small cages, and spray them with mace. It's unbelievable," said Lisa Jobe, whose 15-year-old son is currently being held in the Polk County jail. "I see how difficult this is for my son. Being in the adult jail is beating him down, and I worry about how this will affect him in the future. He has so much life ahead of him."

Decades of research shows that exposing children to adult jails leads to more crime, not less. Based on this research, states around the country have passed legislation prohibiting the placement of children in adult jails. Florida legislators bucked this promising trend when they passed a law that could funnel more children into adult jails throughout the state of Florida.

"The abuse suffered by the children of Polk County should serve as a cautionary tale for counties throughout the state of Florida that are considering housing children in adult jails." Galloni said. "This lawsuit demonstrates that incarcerating children in adult jails is bad public policy that inflicts incalculable harm on children, results in negative public safety outcomes and exposes taxpayers to tremendous legal liability."