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New York Case Example: Why Fully Implementing the Youthful Inmate Standard of PREA Means Removing Youth from Adult Jails and Prisons

Posted in Research & Policy Thursday, 13 October 2016

Wednesday, September 21, 2016, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and Legal Services of Central New York (LSNY) filed a class action lawsuit against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office and Syracuse City School District on behalf of six named plaintiffs—Black and Latino youth ages 16 and 17 jailed at the Justice Center—and a class of similarly situated youth.

The suit’s charges are over the use of solitary confinement for youth in the adult jail citing, “the use of solitary confinement violates the children’s rights and that the sheriff and school district are denying them an appropriate education in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

The sheriff has placed at least 86 youth, many of whom are mentally-ill, in solitary confinement over 250 times since October 2015.

The conditions are dehumanizing and dangerous. While in solitary, youth are sexually harassed by adults; housed in disgusting conditions, where in some cases, there is visible feces and urine on the floor; denied education and, sometimes, pushed to contemplating suicide. 

When the county first began transferring youth to the Justice Center from the Jamesville Correctional Facility it was under the pretext that solitary confinement for youth would be put to an end. Instead the Sheriff’s Office continues to put youth in solitary without even acknowledging it.

Youth who are placed in solitary confinement find it nearly impossible to re-assimilate into the community, especially since the facility is already lacking meaningful educational or rehabilitative programming. Solitary also leads to the deterioration of mental health, leading to psychosis, trauma, depression, self-harm, and suicide in many young people.

This mental deterioration can begin after just one day in solitary, and many of these youth are being placed in these conditions for months, at which time they are not allowed to talk to others, receive essentially no education or mental health care, and are limited to one-hour of “recreation” in small, dirty, chain-linked cages.

There is also no evidence that putting youth in solitary reduces further misbehavior. Executive director at the NYCLU Donna Lieberman says, “Punishing children with solitary doesn’t improve public safety nor serve any disciplinary value -- it is simply torture and has to stop.”

While the suit asks the court to order the Sheriff’s Office to stop using solitary confinement and to completely end its use as a tool to punish children, adult jails do not have many other tools to deal with the youth in their facilities. With that being the case the best thing for these youth would be to keep them out of adult facilities entirely.

In honor of National Youth Justice Awareness/Action Month and PREA Action Week take action on behalf of youth in adult facilities in your state.  Contact your Governor and sign our petition to the National Sheriffs’ Association encouraging them to remove youth from adult jails and prisons.  For more information review our PREA Action Kit.

To view the complaint, visit: http://www.nyclu.org/news/lawsuit-syracuse-jail-harming-children-with-abusive-solitary-confinement-conditions

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