Federal lawsuit aims to prohibit solitary confinement in Florida juvenile detention centers

Federal lawsuit aims to prohibit solitary confinement in Florida juvenile detention centers

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal class action lawsuit demanding that Florida juvenile detention centers stop placing children in solitary confinement, the Tampa Bay Times reported Thursday.

In a year period through June 2018, the SPLC found more than 4,300 Florida children were placed in solitary confinement in the state's 21 juvenile detention centers, amounting to nearly one-third of all children serving juvenile sentences.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Tallahassee, claims the state puts a "shocking" number of children in isolation as a form of punishment. At times, the organization alleges, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice leaves children in confinement for longer than the maximum 72 hours allowed in Florida.

The SPLC warns that extended periods in isolation can generate psychological harm and suicide risk. A U.S. Department of Justice survey discovered that half of suicides occurring in juvenile detention centers happened with children in isolation.

"DJJ [Department of Juvenile Justice] officials know the damaging effects of isolation but have failed to address the situation," Shalini Goel Agarwal, the senior supervising attorney for the Law Center, told the Tampa Bay Times. "Children spend hours or days alone, behind solid, bolted steel doors in tiny cells, with nothing to do but stare at the walls, and without any therapeutic interventions.”

Three plaintiffs in the case, identified only by initials, include a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant and received no medical evaluation before isolation and a 13-year-old boy who had attempted suicide previously.

DJJ spokeswoman Amanda Slama told the Tampa Bay Times that the department does not comment on pending litigation. 

In Florida, children can be put in solitary confinement for up to eight hours before needing approval from the center's superintendent.

Earlier this year, the SPLC filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections for its alleged overuse of solitary confinement, according to its website.

At least 20 states have prohibited or restricted solitary confinement, including New Jersey and Illinois.