- by Judy Molland
- February 27, 2014
- 4:00 am
It’s happening in Contra Costa County, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A class action lawsuit was filed in August 2013 by Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates, on behalf of a teenage girl and two boys, all of whom were or are still detained at a maximum-security, 290-bed juvenile hall in Martinez, Calif. At issue is Contra Costa County’s policy of locking disabled kids in solitary confinement, sometimes for months in a 12-by-12 foot cell.
Attorneys for the federal Department of Justice and Department of Education ripped Contra Costa County officials in charge of juvenile hall for locking up youths in solitary confinement and refusing to school them during their punishment, saying they are violating the teens’ rights.
The suit was brought against the county Probation Department and Contra Costa Office of Education.
A San Francisco federal judge will rule in March whether to grant class-action status to the suit, allowing other disabled youths to sue the county Probation Department, which runs juvenile hall, and the Contra Costa Office of Education, which runs the Mt. McKinley School inside the facility.
County officials are of course hoping the federal case will be dismissed.
Kids With Mental Health Issues
Many of these kids have mental health disabilities. “This is obviously sometimes why they end up in juvenile hall,” said Mary-Lee Smith, Disability Rights Advocates’ managing attorney. “And the only thing that juvenile hall knows to do is sort of a knee-jerk response, to lock them away for longer and a more confined situation in their room.”
Contra Costa Juvenile Hall locks up kids with ADHD, bipolar disorder and other mental disabilities when they misbehave, sometimes for as much as 23 hours. Experts agree that this is the worst thing you can do for young people with a severe mental disability because it makes that disability worse and makes them act out.
As the Contra Costa Times reports:
The Justice Department’s filing quoted findings from a departmental task force that concluded: “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” It said such confinement could lead to “paranoia, anxiety and depression” and creates a risk of suicide.
An attorney representing the teens said the solitary confinement policy is from the “Dark Ages.”
“We do know that Contra Costa is probably one of the worst,” said Smith. “There are many counties that do not use solitary confinement. It’s very troubling and very disturbing to see a county continue to use this form of discipline.”
Students Denied Education
Yes, it certainly is. Not only are these youngsters being held in inhumane conditions, they are also being denied the free, public education to which they are legally entitled.
California state law dictates that, unlike jails for adults, juvenile halls are required to provide a “supportive homelike environment” and focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. Punishments based on a youth’s disability must be treated differently from other discipline, and facilities must provide schooling, including special education, even if youths are being disciplined, according to state law.
Clearly that has not been happening at the Martinez facility.
Here’s the story of one 18-year-old plaintiff, identified as W.B., who was sent to the Martinez facility in May 2012 after being found incompetent to stand trial because of his diagnosis of psychosis and schizophrenia. During his yearlong stay, he spent about 90 days in solitary, according to the lawsuit, and suffered from hearing voices, hallucinations and facial twitching until he deteriorated into smearing feces throughout his cell. He was involuntarily committed to an inpatient psychiatric hospital for three weeks.
Was it really a smart idea to leave him in solitary confinement?
The other two plaintiffs spent more than 100 and 200 days in solitary, respectively, during their stays, and neither received schooling during those punishments.
Ban Solitary Confinement For Juveniles
Importantly, just this week, on February 25, leaders of a Senate panel called on federal and state prison authorities to ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and the mentally ill as part of a national reassessment of the harshest method of incarceration.
And last week, New York State agreed to new guidelines limiting inmates’ time in solitary, while effectively banning its use for juveniles.
As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points out, solitary confinement can cause extreme psychological, physical and developmental harm. For children, who are still developing and more vulnerable to irreparable harm, the risks are magnified – particularly for kids with disabilities or histories of trauma and abuse. While confined, children are regularly deprived of the services, programming and other tools that they need for healthy growth, education and development.
No child should ever be confined in solitary confinement.