Posted February 24th, 2017.
Steve Viuker, New York Law Journal
Minors who are housed in New York adult prisons may not be held in solitary confinement, a federal judge has ruled.
Northern District Judge David Hurd granted a preliminary injunction preventing state corrections officials from subjecting 16- and 17-year-olds to solitary confinement. He said it was likely the plaintiffs would show that the use of such confinement violates juveniles’ constitutional rights.
The decision Wednesday in V.W. v. Conway, 16-CV-1150, is a victory for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit challenging the practice at the Justice Center, a 671-bed facility in Syracuse and operated by Onondaga County. It has an adult inmate population but houses about 30 juveniles, mostly pretrial detainees, the NYCLU said.
Solitary confinement at the Justice Center amounts to being locked in a minimally furnished cell measuring about 8-by-10 feet for approximately 23 hours a day, the NYCLU said. Juveniles in solitary confinement are denied human contact—they must eat alone in their cells, are not permitted to talk to each other through the doors or in passing, and recreation, if any, is limited to one hour per day.
“Putting children in solitary is a grave injustice,” Phil Desgranges, staff attorney at the NYCLU and lead counsel on the case, said in a statement. “This decision makes clear that locking children in isolation endangers their mental health and is an unacceptable practice.”
Desgranges said some of the minors “were becoming suicidal.”
Hurd granted the preliminary injunction after deciding that, among other factors, the inmates affected by solitary confinement were “substantially likely” to prevail on their constitutional claim.
“First, their submissions clearly demonstrate that juveniles face an objectively sufficiently serious risk of harm from the solitary confinement practices at the Justice Center,” Hurd explained. “Second, plaintiffs have identified substantial, compelling evidence in support of a finding that the Onondaga County defendants are specifically aware of, and have consciously chosen to disregard, the serious risk of harm posed by the Justice Center’s solitary confinement practices as they relate to juveniles.”
The NYCLU said New York and North Carolina are the only two states where 16-year-old inmates are held as adults.
“The court found that the use of solitary confinement for children violates or is substantially likely to violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment,” the civil rights group said in a statement Wednesday.
Josh Cotter, a staff attorney at Legal Services of Central New York, was co-counsel on the case. Aimee Krause Stewart from Sanford Heisler in Washington, D.C., also worked on the case for plaintiffs.
The NAACP of Central New York filed an amicus brief in the case.
The county was represented Carol Rhineheart of the Onondaga County Department of Law.
The Syracuse City School District, which was also a defendant in the case, was represented by Jonathan Fellows, a member of Bond, Schoeneck & King in Syracuse.