Onondaga County jail agrees to stop solitary confinement of teens for minor offenses

June 27th, 2017

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The Onondaga County Justice Center and two civil rights organizations have reached an agreement to curb the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for 16- and 17-year-olds held there.

The settlement agreement, filed Monday afternoon in federal court, is the culmination of nine months of legal battles in the class-action lawsuit. Organizations including the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York said the practice of routinely placing teens in cells by themselves for long periods is unconstitutional and harms young minds.

As part of the agreement, which must be approved by a federal judge, teens can only be confined to their cells when the sheriff’s office deems there to be an imminent safety threat that “less restrictive measures cannot adequately resolve,” according to a news release from the NYCLU.

“In such cases, this confinement will last for only the minimum time necessary to resolve an imminent safety threat,” the news release said.

The settlement also requires the school district to provide access to education, special education services and an “incentive program” to encourage better behavior among teen inmates.

Teens will also receive individual plans if they have mental health or learning disabilities, supervised by a “multi-disciplinary team,’ according to the news release.

The organizations alleged the jail, which is run by the county sheriff’s office, and the Syracuse City School District were harming the teens by not educating them and isolating them from their peers.  Between October 2015 and September 2016, at least 86 teens were committed in solitary confinement more than 250 times, according to the NYCLU.

The organizations said teens were punished with solitary confinement for minor offenses like shouting too loudly or violating the dress code.

There are currently 24 16- and 17-year-olds at the jail charged as adults. Most are awaiting trial.

The number of teens charged as adults and, therefore, incarcerated like them is expected to decrease as so-called “raise the age” legislation goes into effect over the next couple years. The law, passed in this year’s state budget, limits teenagers being charged as adults to certain violent, felony offenses.

The lawsuit filed in September 2016 was on behalf of six unnamed plaintiffs who were being held at the time at the Justice Center. Of them, four had attention-deficit disorder.

The teens were placed in cells that were 7 feet by 9 feet for 23 hours a day, according to the lawsuit. Teens spent an average of 26 days there during their incarceration.

The sheriff’s office has not publicly commented on the lawsuit since it was filed in September.

In court documents,  Esteban Gonzalez, the chief deputy of the custody department, said the jail staff, mental health and other health-care workers make regular rounds through the unit where teens are held. He also said the inmates get an hour of exercise each day and have access to other jail services.