Posted June 30th, 2017.
Settlement Will Improve Mental Health and Educational Services For Onondaga County Juveniles
Continued collaboration between lawyers at Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), and Legal Services of Central New York (LSCNY) resulted in a significant victory for youth incarcerated in Syracuse, New York’s Justice Center jail. A settlement with the Onondaga County Sherriff’s Office and Syracuse City School District put an end to the Center’s use of 23-hour-per-day solitary confinement for juveniles.
The settlement is the result of a lawsuit filed last year by the NYCLU, LSCNY and an attorney from Sanford Heisler Sharp.
Youth 16 and 17 years old, many with psychological and emotional illnesses, had been kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, often for months at a time. Although they often exhibited suicidal tendencies, jail officials deliberately ignored warnings about their vulnerabilities, returning them to solitary confinement even after they had been placed on suicide watches for brief periods. Considerable research shows solitary confinement is associated with psychosis, trauma, depression and self-harm.
“Our firm is pleased to be involved in effecting real change in the care for youth confined at the Justice Center jail in Syracuse,” said Sanford Heisler Sharp lawyer Aimee Krause Stewart, who has been involved in the lawsuit since it began. “The psychological, educational and social needs of these young people had been neglected and ignored by officials at the jail during a critical period in their lives. We are gratified to reach a settlement that ensures each of them will now receive education, counseling, and concern appropriate for teenagers.”
The settlement is structured to continue through October 2019, subject to court approval. Under its terms, 16- and 17-year-olds will no longer be subjected to solitary confinement, or be deprived of the education and special educational services to which they are entitled. Youth will be confined to their cells only when there is an imminent safety threat that less restrictive measures cannot adequately resolve. In such cases, this confinement will last for only the minimum time necessary to resolve the threat.
“We are committed to ensuring that children incarcerated in the Onondaga County jail are treated humanely and receive all of the services to which they are entitled under the law,” said David Sanford, the Chairman and co-founder of Sanford Heisler Sharp. “This settlement is an important step in protecting their rights and ensuring their safety.”
Under the terms of the settlement, which included the Syracuse City School District, the Justice Center jail will now provide access to educational instruction, special education services and an incentive program encouraging positive behavior. Youth will have individualized educational plans that identify and accommodate their special needs, will receive mental health counseling and will be supervised by a multi-disciplinary team trained to work with juveniles.
As in many correctional facilities, most youth at the Syracuse Justice Center have not been convicted of a crime; they are incarcerated because they cannot afford bail. Between October of 2015 and September 2016, when the lawsuit was filed, the Sheriff placed at least 86 adolescents in solitary confinement more than 250 times, forcing them to spend 23 hours a day locked in tiny cells, sometimes with feces and urine covering the floor. Youth routinely spent more than 100 days in solitary confinement, often for minor “offenses” such as speaking loudly or wearing the wrong shoes.
While in solitary, children at the Justice Center were not allowed to talk to other detainees, received no education or mental health care and were limited to one hour of “recreation” in small filthy cages. Juveniles were also placed next to adults who sexually harassed them and young girls were watched by adult male guards as they were forced to shower without a curtain.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of all juveniles held in solitary at the Justice Center, led by six Black and Latino plaintiffs, ages 16 and 17. In February, U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd issued a preliminary injunction in the landmark case, setting the stage for the settlement.
Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Stewart was a Fellow at NYCLU when the suit originated and served as counsel for the youthful plaintiffs, playing significant roles in investigating the complaint, and in drafting and filing the lawsuit. Stewart continued to assume a significant pro bono role in the matter since joining Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Washington, D.C. office in October 2016.