In September, 2016, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the Legal Services of Central New York sued Onondaga County, NY (Syracuse) for keeping youth in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day in the adult jail, often for minor offenses. On February 22, 2017, the U.S. District Court Judge granted the NYCLU’s motion for preliminary injunction, preventing the jail from putting youth in 23-hour isolation or using any form of discipline for youth without meaningful social interaction.
At the time that the litigation was filed, in both New York and North Carolina, sixteen and seventeen year olds were automatically charged as adults and locked up in adult jails. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has since signed legislation to raise the age of jurisdiction for most youth, but that law will not go into effect until 2017-2018. In the lawsuit, V.W. et al. v. Conway, the NYCLU alleges that, between October 2015 and October 2016, the Onondaga County Justice Center put at least 86 youth in small isolation cells more than 250 times where they were subjected to abuse, threats, and physical violence from staff and adult inmates.
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As part of the complaint, the NYCLU included the testimony and photographs of Barry Alan Krisberg, an expert in prison conditions from the University of California. Krisberg said the area where youth are house in solitary confinement, known as “the box,” were inhumane and dangerous. The NYCLU argues that solitary confinement violates children’s constitutional rights and that the county school district is violating the their right to an education while they are held at the Justice Center. Read the complaint and the NYCLU press releases from September 2016 and January 2017.
On January 3, 2017, the United States Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case, supporting the NYCLU’s position that even brief periods of solitary confinement is dangerous and harmful for youth. The Justice Department’s statement of interest in a lawsuit where the United States is not a party indicates the significant consequences that could arise from the decision in the NYCLU’s case.
On February 22, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge David Hurd granted the NYCLU’s motion for preliminary injunction. According to Judge Hurd’s decision and order, the jail must no longer place youth in 23-hour isolation, and any new form of discipline for juveniles must include meaningful social interaction and cannot harm the psychological health of the youth. The injunction is particularly significant because Judge Hurd had to find that the plaintiffs were substantially likely to win their case in order to grant the motion. Read more below.