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Judge rules lawsuit challenging Florida’s solitary confinement of children in detention may proceed

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In a ruling Friday, the federal judge presiding over the case G.H. v. Marstiller challenging Florida’s use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities ordered it to  continue to proceed toward trial.

 

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) asked the Northern District of Florida to dismiss the case and the Court rejected the state’s arguments, calling one claim where the state argued that children should be considered the same as adults for purposes of their Eighth Amendment rights “pure malarkey.” 

 

The  lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Justice Institute against the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and DJJ Secretary, Simone Marstiller 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 a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. It is estimated that Florida’s DJJ isolates hundreds of children in solitary confinement in DJJ secure juvenile detention centers on any given day. Plaintiffs seek to represent a class of over 4,000 children who are subject to solitary confinement each year in DJJ facilities.

 

“This opinion acknowledges that children are different than adults and should therefore be treated differently, which the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed in multiple rulings,” said Kelly Knapp, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But the ruling also recognizes that the way Florida isolates children is wrong and harmful to attempts at rehabilitation. It is in the best interests of all Floridians that this horrific practice end.”

 

The suit argues that officials at the DJJ know about the damaging effects of solitary confinement but have refused to address them. It also claims the way Florida practices solitary confinement constitutes discrimination against children with disabilities in violation of  the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

 

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. The lawsuit 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.

 

“DJJ doesn’t have to use solitary confinement. Many other states have moved away from subjecting children to isolation because of how physically, socially, and psychologically damaging it is for children. DJJ needs to make that change and stop subjecting thousands of children to this cruel and inhumane form of punishment every year.” said Andrea Costello, director of the Institutional Legal Services Project at Florida Legal Services. 

 

Between July 1, 2017 and June 1, 2018, DJJ isolated 4,310 children in solitary confinement a total of 11,738 times, meaning that many children were put in isolation repeatedly. In total, DJJ locked up 14,010 children in FY 2017-18. This means approximately 30 percent of children were isolated in solitary confinement at some point while locked up.

 

A national study found that half of children who die by suicide in detention facilities were in solitary and over 60 percent of suicides in juvenile detention were by children who had a history of being  in solitary confinement.

 

“Subjecting anyone to solitary confinement is harmful, but it is especially harmful for children,” said Dante Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute.  The juvenile justice system should focus on rehabilitation rather than using this damaging practice.”

 

Black youth are 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.

 

The complaint is available here: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/doc._2_-_complaint.pdf

The ruling denying the state’s motion to dismiss the case is available here: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/order_denying_defendants_mtd.pdf