Thousands of children in Florida have been kept in conditions that a United Nations special report on torture calls "cruel, inhuman, or degrading."
On any given day, hundreds of children entrusted to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) are held in solitary confinement, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed yesterday in Tallahassee by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Institute for Justice. The legal complaint in the Northern District of Florida calls for the immediate end to isolation as punishment in Florida's 21 juvenile detention facilities.
Citing medical and scientific experts, the lawsuit argues that the use of solitary confinement on children violates the U.S. Constitution as cruel and unusual punishment. It also claims the lack of mental health services provided by the Florida DJJ is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
"We've found that solitary confinement has been used as a punishment of first resort," says Shalini Goel Agarwal, senior supervising attorney at SPLC. She says that children are being placed in solitary confinement for minor transgressions and misbehavior and that the DJJ aggravates psychological distress by failing to provide appropriate mental health services while a juvenile is held in a confinement cell.
"There's a decreased recognition that children aren't little adults," Agarwal says. "But they're children."
More than 4,300 children have been held in solitary confinement over the past year, according to public records requested by the Southern Poverty Law Center and shared with New Times. Among them are the three teenage plaintiffs suing DJJ: a 16-year-old girl sent to solitary confinement while pregnant, a 13-year-old boy kept in isolation even after a suicide attempt in his confinement cell, and a 13-year-old girl with mental health needs shuttled in and out of conditions that exacerbated her distress.
In South Florida's seven facilities, 1,289 children were held in isolation 2,752 times. The Broward Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Lauderdale kept 318 teens in solitary confinement more than 900 times, averaging 22 hours 18 minutes in seclusion. A total of 313 children were held in isolation more than 600 times at the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center, for an average of 28 hours 11 minutes in solitary confinement. All juveniles spent that time stuck in tiny cells, alone with nothing to do but stare at a wall.
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The legacy of racism is paramount in the statistics obtained by SPLC. Black youths are disproportionately targeted for arrest and solitary confinement, and are held in isolation for longer periods of time. African-Americans account for 22 percent of Florida's public school enrollment yet constitute 51 percent of juvenile arrests, 60 percent of children in juvenile detention facilities, and 70 percent of those held in solitary confinement. All three plaintiffs in the lawsuit are black teenagers.
Criminologist Sharon Shalev writes that solitary confinement is "the most extreme penalty which can legally be imposed on prisoners" besides the death penalty. The effects of isolation in adults range from anxiety and depression to cognitive disturbances, visual distortions, psychosis, and self-harm. Because of the developmental vulnerability of teens, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a policy statement in 2012 opposing the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in correctional facilities. A national study cited in the SPLC lawsuit showed that half of the children who die by suicide in detention facilities are in solitary confinement.
"Those entering into the juvenile system frequently are victims of abuse, neglect, substance abuse, and have a high rate of psychiatric illness leading to an increased risk of suicide," says Denise Rock, executive director of Florida Cares, an advocacy and community organization for family members of the incarcerated. "By placing this vulnerable population in solitary confinement, we cause increased trauma."
The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice's vision statement assures that "the children and families of Florida will live in safe, nurturing communities that provide for their needs, recognize their strengths, and support their success." The Southern Poverty Law Center hopes the class-action lawsuit will bring the DJJ to the table in order to make that vision a reality.