Palm Beach County is eliminating solitary confinement for juveniles in adult jails.
The change comes after Palm Beach County's Sheriff's Office reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit that alleged the practice violated the civil rights of it’s youngest inmates.
The School District of Palm Beach was also mentioned in the lawsuit.
The county’s sheriff office did not respond to WLRN’s requests for comment.
Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County was one the groups that led this class action lawsuit. WLRN reporter Nadege Green spoke with Melissa Duncan, an attorney with Legal Aid
WLRN: What prompted this lawsuit?
Melissa Duncan: One of our colleagues at the public defender's office came to me and said that she was concerned about children at the jail not receiving educational services. We went to the jail together and spoke to some of her clients who were being held in solitary confinement. And as I spoke to them I realized the issue wasn't just that they weren't getting education.
The issue was that they were being held 23 to 24 hours a day in their cells for weeks months and up to a year on end. And all of these children, by the way, are pre-trial so they haven't been convicted of any crime.
What were they being put in solitary confinement for?
The named plaintiffs in our suit were being placed in solitary confinement for either disciplinary confinement or administrative confinement. Disciplinary confinement is for a rule violation, administrative confinement deals with the safety and security of the correctional facility.
Unfortunately, administrative confinement -the way that our plaintiffs and the children similarly situated were being held- was in indefinite confinement lasting for weeks months and even a year.
How did the teenagers that are part of this lawsuit describe what solitary confinement was like—what were those conditions like?
The kids said that solitary confinement - They also call it 'the box' - makes you go crazy. And so the children that were mentioned in our case had active hallucinations. One child, for instance, envisioned that he was watching movies and TV on the blank wall of his cell after being held for many months without being able to leave the cell for any meaningful social interaction. There were other children that engaged in self-harm and one child, in particular, cut himself just to be able to get out of solitary confinement and go to the medical unit.
And how did you investigate what the teens were saying? How did you verify their claims?
SO I and my counterpart from Human Rights Defense Center, Sabarish Neelakanta—the litigation director there— went to meet with many children at the jail and the threads of similarity through their stories were incredible. All of the children spoke about only being able to shower three times a week for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. We ended up getting all of the children's records of logs throughout their confinement [and] any medical treatment.
So at some point, you were able to talk to the staff at the jail. What did they tell you?
Well, as you can imagine, in a lawsuit it's an adversarial setting. And so through depositions, we were able to ask about certain services, but though we reached a settlement agreement the jail did not admit to holding the children in solitary confinement. They admitted that the children were in their cells for an extended period of time but they never admitted that it was solitary confinement. They still called it segregation segregated housing.
So a settlement but without admitting any fault.
Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is named in this lawsuit and so is the school district. What role does the school district play?
Jail provides the structure and the housing and the security. But the school district is to provide the instruction. And when we filed our complaint the response from the jail was that, 'Hey we don't provide educational services.' And the response from the school district was, 'We don't lock children in confinement.' And the Department of Justice actually stepped in and filed a Statement of Interest.
This case did draw the interest of the U.S. attorney general. What did that statement say, what did the federal government have to say about this case?
They did address education for special education students and mentioned that the jail and the school district are not permitted to point fingers at each other while the children sit by without educational services.
Talk to me about the details of the settlement, what changes now?
The settlement is huge and it's the first of its kind in Florida and the settlement ended solitary confinement for the children at the jail. All children, regardless of confinement status, are able to attend school during the day. So, instead of having a teacher perhaps stand outside of the cell door speaking at a loud volume for a few minutes and then shoving a worksheet under the door, the children actually get to come out of their cells and attend school, just like their peers at the jail.
Any child regardless of confinement status will now be able to have a shower seven days a week. And I know that sounds like maybe unimportant or taken for granted by people who get to live outside of a correctional facility but for these children it's a big deal to be able to shower seven days a week.