HRDC wins settlement in FL juvenile solitary confinement case
Sheriff to end solitary confinement for teens at Palm Beach County jail under settlement
By John Pacenti
Young offenders called it “the box.”
It’s where their world at the Palm Beach County jail shrank to a 6-by-12 foot cell — for months.
In solitary confinement, no music was allowed. No television. No human contact.
If they complained, they were subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse by sheriff’s deputies.
Some of these teens ‒ often charged as adults with brutal crimes ‒ even started hallucinating.
All of this was detailed in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in June on behalf of two juvenile inmates who spent time in the box on the 12th floor of the Main Detention Center on Gun Club Road.
Now the box’s brutal reign is over.
After defending its use of solitary confinement for teenage jail inmates, PBSO is eliminating it in what is being heralded as a landmark settlement.
A new and extensive “segregated housing” policy replaces solitary confinement. All juvenile inmates will have access to a regular school day outside their cell with other juveniles in the general population.
The sheriff’s department will implement a rotating schedule to keep these juveniles away from co-defendants where before they would be put in solitary for administrative, not disciplinary, reasons.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and the Palm Beach County School Board under the settlement vow to make these inmates get education and mental health treatment.
Only teen defendants in protective custody will be subject to a more rigorous confinement.
First in Florida
“This proposed settlement is the first of its kind in Florida, and a good precedent,” said Sabarish P. Neelakanta, general counsel and litigation director for the Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoners’ rights group based in Lake Worth that engages in prisoner rights litigation nationwide. “The Sheriff’s Office and school board worked hard to address the situation, and it is our hope that the settlement serves as a framework for reform statewide.”
The sheriff’s office admits no wrongdoing in the settlement but agreed to the widespread reforms.
Sheriff spokeswoman Teri Barbera said the department under policy does not comment on legal settlements but added that such cases are often complex and settled in the “best interest of Palm Beach County taxpayers.”
A call for comment from the school district was not returned. The School Board is expected to approve the settlement Wednesday night.
The lawsuit was spearheaded by the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the Human Rights Defense Center. The class-action complaint claimed PBSO and the school district violated the teen inmates’ constitutional rights by subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment and lack of due process.
Now both organizations, as well as designated experts, will oversee implementation of the new policy for a two-year period.
The powerhouse class-action law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers also joined the plaintiffs to tackle the issue.
“We have worked hard to protect the constitutional rights of juveniles whose civil liberties are at risk,” said Theodore J. Leopold, co-chair of the firm’s Complex Tort Litigation and Consumer Protection practices.
Many of the teenagers in solitary were developmentally disabled and were denied assistance guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act, the lawsuit alleged.
This caught the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which in an Oct. 1 “statement of interest” in the lawsuit said that the fact that the sheriff and school board were pointing fingers at each other was the root of the problem.
“Under federal law, however, both defendants are responsible for ensuring that eligible children with disabilities at the jail receive special education and related services,” the Justice Department said. “Defendants cannot avoid responsibility by claiming the other is responsible.”
It was Melissa Duncan of Legal Aid Society who heard from the Public Defender’s Office that the juvenile inmates in solitary were not getting a sufficient education.
“We are pleased that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and School Board of Palm Beach County are willing to address the harmful conditions of solitary confinement and ensuing lack of access to appropriate education,” said Duncan, supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County’s Education Advocacy Project.
Duncan discovered that juveniles in solitary often were provided with packets of educational material, but that the closest thing to a lesson would be from an instructor outside their cell who could barely be seen because of scratches through the cell door windows.
Putrid water to drink
But the situation was far worse than just a lack of education. The Human Rights Defense Center found that these young inmates spent nearly 24 hours in their small cell adorned only with a metal cot, a sink and stainless steel desk and commode bolted to the wall. Their food was passed on a tray through a slot in their cell.
They were forced to drink the putrid discolored water from the sink attached to their toilet.
One teen inmate ended up in the box for 16 consecutive months. Another spent 21 months there. A former 10th grader at Lake Worth High School, started hallucinating, staring at the blank wall of his cell, thinking he was watching a TV show.
After the lawsuit was filed, Bradshaw said he was in compliance with the Florida Model Jail Standards and noted the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit faced charges of first-degree murder.
“There are legitimate security and inmate safety concerns” his statement read.
Under the settlement, the sheriff’s office has agreed to send a team to a weekly segregated review committee on the status of juvenile inmates in segregated housing. They are bound to confer within 24 hours after a teenage inmate is placed in solitary.
The lawsuit repeatedly emphasized how mental health services were used as additional punishment for the juveniles in solitary who complained too much. Deputies would threaten to send them to the mental health ward on a suicide watch where they would be stripped naked and left in a freezing cell, wearing only a paper gown.
Now the sheriff’s office must refer the juvenile to a mental health professional for evaluation and to determine whether any accommodations are necessary.
Nehomie Perceval of West Palm Beach said her son, Jeremy, had been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety before he ended up in solitary. A judge eventually ordered him released from the box.