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Judge rules Florida lawsuit can have all children in solitary as plaintiffs

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The federal judge presiding over the case of G.H. v. Tamayo, a statewide challenge to the Department of Juvenile Justice’s use of solitary confinement, has ruled that the case can proceed as a class action. This means that the 15- year- old plaintiffs, G.H. and R.L., will represent all children who are or will be in solitary confinement in juvenile detention centers throughout Florida. 

It is estimated that Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) isolates hundreds of children in solitary confinement in DJJ- secure juvenile detention centers on any given day. With this ruling, attorneys for the plaintiffs will represent a class of over 3,000 children who are subject to solitary confinement each year in DJJ facilities. 

“This ruling recognizes the obvious, that this is a textbook class action case,” said Leonard J. Laurenceau, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “We have compelling evidence that state officials have known for years about the damaging effects of solitary confinement but have refused to address them. We will also prove that the way Florida uses solitary confinement constitutes discrimination against children with disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.”

The lawsuit was filed by SPLC, Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Justice Institute against DJJ and acting DJJ Secretary Josefina M. Tamayo in her official capacity. The lawsuit challenges the DJJ’s use of solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution and as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act for children with disabilities. 

“This decision is a big step forward in pursuing justice for hundreds of children who should not face a dangerous risk of harm from DJJ’s use of solitary confinement,” said Andrea Costello, director of the Institutional Legal Services Project at Florida Legal Services. “Other states have figured out how to create a rehabilitative and supportive environment for children in their juvenile justice systems; Florida needs to do the same.” 
The lawsuit cites scientific, medical, and mental health evidence likening solitary confinement to torture and demonstrating its dangers to the development and rehabilitation of children. It challenges DJJ’s policy of using solitary confinement in 21 state-operated secure detention facilities, including isolating children in solitary confinement for even minor misbehavior.

 “Proceeding as a class action allows the case to address the problem of solitary confinement on a systemic basis,” said Dante P. Trevisani, Executive Director of the Florida Justice Institute.  “We look forward to demonstrating how these practices are harmful to children and how they should be reformed.”

Black youth are also disproportionately targeted for arrest and solitary confinement. They constitute 22% of Florida’s public-school enrollment, but 51% of juvenile arrests, over 60% of children in DJJ secure detention, and 70% of children in solitary confinement statewide. 

The lawsuit also describes the department’s failure to provide children with access to school services, recreation, or appropriate mental health services - heightening the risk of psychological damage from confinement. Children spend hours or days alone, behind solid, bolted steel doors in tiny cells, with nothing to do but stare at the walls, and without any appropriate therapeutic interventions.

A copy of the ruling can be read here