The Justice Department filed a statement of interest today addressing the harmful effects of subjecting juvenile offenders to solitary confinement. The statement of interest was filed in V.W. et al. v. Conway et al., a class action brought by six juveniles and their parents and natural guardians to challenge the placement of youth in solitary confinement in the Onondaga County Justice Center in Syracuse, New York.
The statement of interest, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, advances the United States’ position that juveniles should not be placed in restrictive housing, including solitary confinement, as explained in the department’s January 2016 Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Solitary Confinement. That report provided that in very rare circumstances, juveniles may be separated from others, but only as a temporary response to behavior posing a serious and immediate risk of physical harm. This statement of interest states that accordingly, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has ended the practice of using restrictive housing for juveniles. The filing also explains that, consistent with scientific consensus from many child psychology experts and researchers that solitary confinement should be banned for juveniles, courts have recognized the developmental vulnerability of juvenile brains and the irreversible damage that solitary confinement can inflict on adolescents.
In V.W. et al. v. Conway et al., the plaintiffs allege that the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office unconstitutionally imposes solitary confinement on juveniles in its custody at the Justice Center. Plaintiffs describe this practice as involving at least 23 hours a day in an approximately 60 square foot cell with minimal furnishings, inadequate mental health care and virtually no contact with others except for adult inmates in neighboring cells who routinely harass and intimidate them. Plaintiffs allege that between Oct. 1, 2015 and Aug. 31, 2016, at least 86 juveniles were placed in solitary confinement. As a result, the juvenile plaintiffs allege they regularly experience anxiety, hopelessness, irritability, stress, sadness, post-traumatic symptoms, agitation and suicidal ideations.
“Both the Supreme Court and experts in the field agree that juveniles are developmentally different from adults,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “Accordingly, they must be treated differently and provided additional protections while in custody. This brief advances the Justice Department’s efforts to protect juveniles from serious harm to their physical, psychological and social development.”
In recent years, the department has taken several steps to address the use of solitary confinement on juveniles in jails, including the ongoing investigation of the Jefferson County Jail in Alabama and the 2016 investigation and subsequent consent decree in which the Hinds County Jail in Mississippi agreed to eliminate solitary confinement as a disciplinary sanction for juveniles. In 2015, the department investigated and entered into a consent decree with the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island, in which the jails agreed to ban punitive solitary confinement for juveniles. In 2014, the department investigated and reached an agreement with the state of Ohio to reduce significantly, and ultimately eliminate, its use of seclusion on young people in its custody.
V.W. et al. v. Conway et al. was filed in December 2015. Plaintiffs filed a motion for class certification in September 2016, and a motion for preliminary injunction in December 2016. The court will hold a hearing on plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction on Jan. 27, 2017.