Lawsuit aims to end solitary confinement of children in Florida

A lawsuit filed Thursday seeks to end the practice of keeping Florida juveniles in solitary confinement, which the plaintiffs called “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and Florida Justice Institute filed the federal lawsuit against the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and its secretary, Simone Marstiller.

The lawsuit alleges that department officials at juvenile detention centers isolate kids for minor acts such as horseplay, running or peeling paint off the wall. When in confinement, children are allowed out of the room only to shower, the litigation states. In some instances, the suit says, feces were smeared on the walls and bugs infested rooms and detainees had to yell or bang on the doors to get the attention of guards.

“Florida to us seems pretty wildly out of step with where it should be,” said Shalini Agarwal, a co-counsel on the case with the SPLC.

Solitary confinement can have a drastic effect on anyone, but children are especially vulnerable because of their developing brains, according to the lawsuit.

Despite confinement creating a higher risk of suicidal behavior, the lawsuit says DJJ put children with mental health problems into solitary without proper assessments or treatment.

A spokeswoman for DJJ said she could not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit’s listed plaintiffs are three juveniles in North Florida, all with records of mental illness or disabilities. One boy, referred to as G.H., was put in confinement multiple times. At one point while in confinement he tried to choke himself with his pants. An officer removed the pants from around his neck, spoke to him and left. G.H. then tried to choke himself again, the lawsuit says.

The other cases involve a pregnant 16-year-old who allegedly was put into solitary, potentially increasing the risk of miscarriage, and a 13-year-old girl with a mood disorder kept in solitary after another child punched her in the face.

Over the course of about a year, the department put 4,310 children in isolation 11,738 times, according to data from the DJJ cited in the lawsuit.

Kory Hill, the former chief of the juvenile division of the Broward Public Defender’s office, said in Broward the PD staff gathered affidavits from children in confinement showing improper treatment. He said when he and colleagues would go to the department to report policy violations, they were given a “political answer,” told the department was looking into complaints.

African-American children are disproportionately targeted for arrests and solitary confinement, according to the lawsuit. Gordon Weekes, the executive chief assistant public defender in Broward, said girls are also targeted because it makes it easier for staffing.

Simone Marstiller, the secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, has been named in a lawsuit seeking to end the practice of solitary confinement in detention centers. Florida Department of Juvenile Justice

“There are better ways to address a child than just throwing them in a cage and locking them up all by themselves,” he said. “It’s a long time coming that we move to better approaches when it comes to dealing with children that are in state care and custody.”

This week, a 17-year-old boy, Sonny Rugani, hanged himself at the adult jail in Broward. The facility is run by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, not DJJ. His father believes he was alone in the cell, despite a history of expressing suicidal thoughts. BSO has not confirmed Sonny was housed by himself.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican and vice chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said he is fully against long-term solitary confinement for children but said separation is sometimes needed if someone is being violent. He said the committee has plans to address solitary confinement this legislative session and will look into statutory fixes.

“The question is how has that review process been done,” he said. “To me that’s the important piece.”

In 2016, the Miami Herald published a series of articles on the Department of Juvenile Justice, Fight Club, focusing on lax hiring standards, low pay, poor healthcare, sexual misconduct between staff and detainees and a practice of paying teens with honey buns to act as enforcers, sometimes administering beatings to keep fellow detainees in line.