Syracuse Suit Condemns Solitary Confinement for Juvenile Offenders

In September 2016, a federal suit was filed in Syracuse which seeks to halt the placement of juvenile offenders into solitary confinement in the Onondaga County Jail. The suit explains that such acts violate the federal law and the US Constitution. According to the Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Donna Lieberman, solitary confinement does not serve any legitimate purpose when it comes to law enforcement.

Moreover, she has described it as an action that undermines both safety and rehabilitation. In addition, it was also said that the solitary confinement clearly violates the Disabilities Education Act and the 8th and 14th Amendments. Solitary confinement also exposes the young juvenile offenders of 16 and 17 years of age to the risk of long-term mental damage. She has also revealed that federal prisons, as well as the New York City prisons, have stopped sending these juvenile offenders to solitary confinement, and that it is time for Syracuse to follow suit.

An Overview of the Civil-rights Suit

The suit was submitted to the Legal Services of Central New York Inc and the NYCLU. It was carried out on behalf of six young teenage offenders who were subjected to solitary confinement in the years 2015 and 2016. These six individuals underwent the said confinement in the Onondaga County Justice Center. The plaintiffs of the case also revealed that in the year 2015, there were approximately 80 teens who underwent similar treatment.

A similar suit was also submitted to NYCLU which prompted the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo to agree to a settlement. This also includes taking measures in revamping the policies on solitary confinement in prisons and the potential banning of both 16 and 17-year old offenders to such confinement. However, it is also important to point out that while the potential ban may be deemed possible, exemptions to the rule may still exist.

The Preliminary Statements of the Suit

The preliminary statement of the suit shed light onto why it is crucial for Syracuse to halt solitary confinement for the young offenders. One statement places a chief focus on the serious harm that juvenile offenders face. These include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychosis, and even suicide. The civil-rights suit also challenges the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office to explain why these solitary confinement punishments are carried out even when there has already been a national abandonment of the case.

Another statement from the suit also discusses the conditions of the juvenile offenders in the solitary confinement cells of about 7 feet by 9 feet in size. It was also revealed that those who undergo such treatment have to stay within the cells for 23 hours a day for weeks or even months. Many of these children already experience mental illnesses which can be aggravated by the lack of meaningful interaction with other units, no form of education, and scarce reading or entertainment materials. They are also at risk of facing further punishments when found to be interacting with other young individuals. Such conditions often result in these young individuals feeling suicidal or even homicidal. The term ‘recreation’ is also defined differently under solitary confinement as it often takes place in bigger but filthier cages. The statement also gives immense importance to the mental health of the juvenile offenders.

Another case pointed out in the preliminary statement is how the Sheriff’s Office impose solitary confinement for even just minor misbehavior. One example used is how one juvenile offender was subjected for a month for merely refusing to be quiet and speaking loudly. Another one was also punished and placed under solitary for 20 whole days for throwing juice and being loud. Several other cases were also noted and all display one similarity – that harsh punishments such as solitary confinement have been used as a tool for punishment for the simplest cases of misbehavior and solely for a sadistic reason.

One of the biggest reasons as to why solitary confinement for juvenile offenders has to stop, according to the preliminary statement made, is that it can potentially dangerous for any individual. Juveniles still undergo physical, social, and psychological development, and isolating them may disrupt the process. Sadly, this could also result in trauma, psychosis, self-harm, and depression. One of the biggest impacts of solitary confinement is that it may potentially and permanently interfere with the psychological development of one person. When both social and psychological developments are disturbed, mental illnesses and behavioral problems may also unfold.

Plaintiffs in the case also highlighted how subjecting juvenile offenders to solitary confinement can be counterproductive to the goal of creating a society that is in order, free from crimes, and enforcing corrective measures on misbehavior. Another crucial point highlighted in the preliminary statement is the recommendation of the US Department of Justice to prohibit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. The said recommendation also obtained the support of President Obama himself. Other agencies that have called for the halt of the use of such confinement for disciplinary reasons are the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the National Commission onCorrectional Health Care, and the American Medical Association.

The move to seek the eradication of solitary confinement for juveniles is not only based on statistics and cases seen in the Onondaga County Justice Center but also on the results of studies. As per several types of research, isolating children or forcing them to do solitary confinement may only prompt them to misbehave more. Increased agitation is also one of the results seen in several cases of solitary confinement. The plaintiffs seek for the county justice system to adopt more appropriate, humane, and better techniques in managing the misbehavior of juvenile offenders. The short-term separation which is only measured in hours can also be a better option than keeping an individual isolated for weeks or even months. The use of solitary confinement is also described as ‘barbaric’ by the plaintiffs and they fervently seek both injunctive and declaratory relief that will put an end to this practice within the justice center in the Onondaga county.

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A Quick Look at the Facts on Solitary Confinement in New York

Every year, there are about 2000 individuals in the entire New York that are released from the said solitary confinement. These men and women do not receive any rehabilitative programming nor educational services. Another problem noted is that these individuals do not also benefit from any form of transitional services. These programs are essential to help the reconnect to the society again and understand their role again. The absence of these programs has been revealed as one of the factors that prompt higher rates of recidivism. These individuals who undergo solitary confinement also suffer intense sensory deprivation and idleness that eventually become reasons for psychological damages.

The figures are likewise alarming. With about 4000 men, women, and children, on any given day suffer from the excruciating torture of being isolated in different prisons in New York State. The UN Special Rapporteur has already denounced such practice and they immensely believe that such punishment should not go beyond 15 days. Another unfortunate fact about the practice is that 5 out of 6 cases that end in solitary confinement are due to non-violent behaviors.