After federal ruling, juveniles to be moved from solitary to detention center

A federal ruling ordered 16- and 17-year-olds to no longer be housed in solitary confinement

By Patrick Lohmann
Syracuse Media Group

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Two teens have been removed from "months" of solitary confinement at the Onondaga County Justice Center, and a plan is now in place to move the 29 teenagers housed at the jail to the Hillbrook Juvenile Detention Center, according to the teens' lawyer and a county official.

The lawyer, Josh Cotter, said much is still up in the air at the county jail after a federal ruling last week that ordered 16- and 17-year-olds to no longer be housed in solitary confinement. The order is in place temporarily as the class-action lawsuit plays out in federal court. 

The lawsuit from Legal Services CNY and the New York Civil Liberties Union claims the jail's practice of placing 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement is damaging to young minds, deprives teens of their education and is unconstitutional. The lawsuit also targets the Syracuse City School District for failing to educate the teens who are housed in solitary confinement.

Of 131 teens admitted to the jail between Oct. 29, 2015, and Oct. 19, 2016, 79 of them spent time in solitary confinement, according to the lawsuit. Inmates spend 23 hours a day in their "barren" cells that are 7 feet by 9 feet, the lawsuit says.

Since the order, Cotter said two teens were removed late last week from the so-called "box" on the fifth floor of the jail, which is the punitive or administrative segregation unit. Teens could also still be held in solitary confinement in the juvenile pod on the second floor, Cotter said.

In a statement, Onondaga County spokesman Justin Sayles said the process to move 16-and 17-year-olds "who have been convicted of a crime" to Hillbrook began several weeks ago. He said the teens will be moved beginning next week.

The jail also houses teenage inmates awaiting trial, but Sayles could not immediately say how they might be treated under the new plan. He referred comment to the sheriff's office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Hillbrook houses young people age 10 to 16  with pending juvenile cases that come to family court. The center's website said it can house up to 32 youth. 

There are currently 29 16- and 17-year-olds incarcerated at the jail, Cotter said.

Cotter also said the jail has promised a "progressive" new disciplinary policy for teenagers that could result in teens being placed in solitary confinement as punishment less often. The lawsuit alleges teens are often placed there arbitrarily. 

Cotter called a move to Hillbrook potentially a "great alternative" depending on the details. His office will meet with county officials later this week, he said.  

He said the two teens, whom he declined to identify citing privacy concerns, were "incredibly happy to be out of 'the box.'"


©2017 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

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