Citing scientific, medical, and mental health evidence comparing solitary confinement to torture, three civil justice groups have filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and its Secretary, Simone Marstiller, seeking to end the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court Northern Division of Florida by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute on behalf of three anonymously named teenagers who were placed in solitary confinement in state juvenile facilities.
The suit challenges the 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. The lawsuit alleges that the policy violates the U.S. Constitution and discriminates against children with disabilities, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
“When children go into solitary confinement, they have no idea if, or when, they are getting out,” the suit says.
The suit also claims that DJJ officials, including Secretary Marstiller, knew about the damaging effects of solitary but failed to address them.
The lead plaintiff, “G.H.,” is alleged to have been placed in solitary confinement at the Volusia Regional Juvenile Detention Center even after he attempted suicide in his confinement cell.
A 16-year-old girl at Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center, referred to as “B.W.” in the lawsuit, was put in solitary confinement for not going to school even though she is pregnant, the suit alleges. She was put in secure detention for removing the ankle monitor.
And a 13-year-old girl named “R.L.” was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder in the sixth grade. She was placed in solitary confinement “repeatedly” at the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
Five states – New York, New Jersey, Nebraska, North Carolina and New Mexico – have banned solitary confinement for juveniles in their state prison systems.
A proposal was filed in the Florida Legislature this spring by Tallahassee Democratic state Senator Bill Montford that would have allowed inmates younger than 19 to be held in solitary confinement only in an emergency or if they need to be isolated for medical reasons. It failed in committee, as did another bill sponsored in the Senate by Broward County Democrat Gary Farmer.
The suit includes DJJ statistics that in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, 14,010 juveniles were placed into DJJ Secure Detention statewide. Approximately 5,314 were 15 years old or younger. The statewide average length of stay for a child in Secure Detention was 14 days.
The lawsuit also alleges that DJJ procedures impose limits on confinement of 72 hours, but in practice, the department “regularly exceeds this time limit.”
The three groups filing the lawsuit, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute, filed a similar lawsuit in May against the Department of Corrections for using solitary confinement against the adult inmate population. That suit called the state’s use of solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
A spokesperson said that the Department of Juvenile Justice does not comment on pending litigation.
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