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Lawsuit Challenges Solitary Confinement of Children

Sent to solitary at 16 for arguing over a basketball, Randy attempted suicide. (NYCLU)
Sent to solitary at 16 for arguing over a basketball, Randy attempted suicide. (NYCLU)
September 22, 2016

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - A federal lawsuit was filed Wednesday against the Sheriff's Office in Onondaga County, where 16- and 17-year-olds are often held in solitary confinement, sometimes for months at a time.

In 2014, New York State agreed to end solitary confinement for juveniles in state prisons and even Rikers Island in New York City has recognized that extreme isolation of juveniles must stop. But according to Stan Young, director of advocacy at Legal Services of Central New York, Syracuse is one of the few places in the country where the practice continues.

"The fact that our own Onondaga County Justice Center is still using solitary confinement as a means of punishing children is a shame and a disgrace, and it must stop here too," he said.

New York is one of only two states that still automatically charges 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. The lawsuit said the Onondaga County Sheriff's Office's use of solitary confinement violates the U.S. Constitution and federal education laws.

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said since October of last year, at least 86 children at the jail have been placed in solitary more than 250 times for infractions as minor as wearing the wrong shoes.

"Children are denied anything resembling an education or mental health services," she said. "Their few human interactions often involve fear, humiliation and even sexual harassment from adults."

Most of the juveniles held in the jail have not been convicted of a crime, they just can't afford bail, and most are children of color.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that children cannot be punished like adults without accounting for their youth.

Phil DesGranges, staff attorney with NYCLU and lead counsel in the case, pointed out that children are uniquely vulnerable to the harms of extreme isolation.

"There is a growing international consensus that solitary confinement puts juveniles at risk of psychosis, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even suicide," he explained.

The class-action lawsuit was filed Wednesday morning in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY