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New Lawsuit Challenges Use of Solitary Confinement for Children in Florida

Policy harms children psychologically, hinders rehabilitation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. --Citing scientific, medical and mental health evidence likening solitary confinement to torture and demonstrating its dangers to the development and rehabilitation of children, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Florida Legal Services (FLS), and the Florida Justice Institute (FJI) have filed a federal class action lawsuit against Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ)seeking to end the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities in Florida.  It is estimated that Florida’s DJJ isolates hundreds of children in solitary confinement on any given day.

13-year-old G.H. remained in solitary confinement at the Volusia Regional Juvenile Detention Center even after he attempted suicide in his confinement cell, and despite staff’s awareness of the suicide risk. He was put in solitary for, among other things, play fighting another child in the facility. 

 

G.H. is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit G.H. v. Marstiller, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. The suit challenges DJJ’s policy in 21 state-operated secure detention facilities of isolating children in solitary confinement for minor misbehavior and failing to provide them access to school services, recreation, or appropriate mental health services, heightening the risk of psychological damage from confinement. The suit argues that this practice violates the U.S. Constitution and discriminates against children with disabilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The suit also argues that DJJ officials know about the damaging effects of solitary but have failed to address them.

 

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include:

  • A 16-year-old girl, B.W.,  at the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center who was put in solitary confinement for not going to school even though she’s pregnant. She was put in secure detention for removing her ankle monitor.
  • A 13-year-old girl, R.L, who was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder in the sixth grade. But that hasn’t stopped authorities in Jacksonville from locking her up in solitary confinement repeatedly at the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center. Her mother, Angel Carter, wants her daughter out of solitary and put somewhere where she can get the mental health treatment she needs.

“My daughter clearly has a disability,” said Carter, who is a registered nurse. “But instead of getting her treatment they’re locking her up.”

 

“DJJ resorts to solitary confinement as its punishment of choice, instead of alternatives proven to be as effective at modifying behavior and calming children down,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “DJJ officials know the damaging effects of isolation but have failed to address the situation.  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 therapeutic interventions” said Goel Agarwal. 

 

African American 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 numbers are even higher at the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

 

“We know the criminal justice system disproportionately targets children of color, and we are seeing the disparities in punishment inside detention facilities,” Agarwal said.

 

Solitary confinement is increasingly recognized by medical and mental health professionals as torture. Subjecting children to solitary confinement and depriving them of even minimal meaningful social interaction can cause trauma, depression, and anxiety, increase the risk of suicide and self-harm. These effects have appeared within hours or days of isolation, worsening over time and can create permanent damage. A national study found that half of children who die by suicide in detention facilities are in solitary confinement and over 60% of suicides in juvenile detention are by children with a history of being in solitary confinement.

 

 “Solitary confinement doesn’t work. In fact, isolating children is harmful because they are still developing psychologically, physically, and socially,” said Andrea Costello, Director of the Institutional Legal Services Project at Florida Legal Services. “Although many states have ended the use of solitary confinement for children because of the damage that it can cause, DJJ still subjects thousands of children to this cruel and inhumane form of punishment every year.”

 

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 that approximately 30 percent of children were isolated in solitary confinement at some point while locked up.

 

 In the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center, DJJ isolated 276 children a total of 650 times. There were 1,375 children locked up in the Duval facility in FY 2017-18. This means that between 20 and 47 percent of children in Duval were put in isolation. In the Volusia Regional Juvenile Detention Center, DJJ isolated 220 children a total of 557 times.  There were 1,041 children locked up in the Volusia facility in FY 2017-18.  This means that between 21 and 53 percent of children in Volusia were put in isolation.

 

 “As we learn more about the horrific effects solitary confinement has on an individual, many places in the United States and throughout the world are actively seeking to end the use of solitary,” said Dante Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute. “But Florida is an outlier that continues to use the practice. It’s time to join the rest of the world and recognize there are better ways to deal with children who need help and rehabilitation.”

 

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