A new lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York is alleging that the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office has been locking up juveniles in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, and sexually harassing and abusing the children, some of whom are mentally ill.
“Any time you send a child to solitary confinement, you risk damaging them permanently,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director at the NYCLU, on a conference call announcing the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon.
The class-action lawsuit, which is being filed by the families of the children, alleges that they were forced to share showers with adult prisoners. The children were also doused with urine and feces as guards looked on, the complaint alleges.
In one especially sadistic practice, deputies would use half-court shots to determine who would go to solitary confinement.
From the lawsuit:
One deputy made each teen on a basketball court pick a number and told them that if he made a jump shot the boy with the number closest to a number the deputy had in mind would have to go to solitary. The deputy made the shot, and K.D. was sent to solitary because he picked the number closest to the deputy’s. And this basketball-shot solitary has happened on other occasions, to named plaintiff M.R. and to other children at the jail.
A sixteen-year-old girl named Charnasha says in a release that the jail’s guards would make comments on her body as she stood naked before them. “I felt uncomfortable and exposed. I still can’t sleep at night because of the nightmares. I think what happened to me was wrong.”
Another teenager named Randy, who was also held at the facility, described feeling suicidal, and tried to cut his own wrists. You can’t see anything, just black walls closing in. I kept thinking about killing myself.”
Since October 2015, the sheriff’s office has put 86 children in solitary confinement, for reasons ranging from administrative, disciplinary, and, in the case of the basketball incidents, completely arbitrary.
“For children, even a short stint in solitary at the Justice Center can alter their entire lives,” Philip Desgranges, a staff attorney at the NYCLU, said during the press conference. “Their mental health deteriorates and some have thoughts of suicide after just a day in solitary. A justice system that puts anyone, especially vulnerable children, through long periods of abuse for such trivial reasons has forgotten the meaning of justice.”
Each of the six defendants is either black or Latino.
Earlier this year, President Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. Following a lawsuit also brought by the NYCLU that was settled 2014, New York State ended solitary confinement for juveniles in state prisons. However, that settlement only applies to prisons, and not county jails like the Justice Center, which is run exclusively by the sheriff’s department. According to NYCLU, the sheriff’s department has denied it places any juveniles in solitary.