Settlement Reforms Solitary Confinement of Juveniles at Onondaga County Jail

Jun 27, 2017

The treatment of juveniles at the Onondaga County Justice Center is about to change after a settlement that ends the routine practice of placing 16 and 17 year-olds in solitary confinement for weeks and even months at a time.  The agreement comes nine months after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the teens.

LSCNY and NYCLU filed their lawsuit last September. Staff attorney Josh Cotter, left, listens as Walta Williams describes what her son Randy Pope endured in the justice center
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

The suit was brought by Legal services of Central New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union.  LSCNY  staff attorney Josh Cotter says they wanted to show that jail deputies shouldn’t be treating juveniles the same as adults…

"They don't differentiate between adults with very different needs and 16 and 17-year-old kids.  They didn't think they needed to.  I think this lawsuit shines the light on the real harm."

He says the teens were often sent to solitary confinement for minor offenses.  They were housed next to adults, some with mental illness, who threatened them, threw urine and feces, and deprived them of sleep.   Cotter says this can have a profound effect on teens whose brains are still developing.  Some went into depression and contemplated suicide.  Now, he says, solitary will be a last resort.

"This settlement brings it down to the minimal time necessary for the kid to regain his composure and get back out after less restrictive are already used," Cotter said.  "They're going to try and counsel the kids, tell him to stop first.  Before,  it was 'you misbehaved, you're going into solitary for at least a day,' but more often, for weeks or months."

Cotter says the jail will also use positive reinforcement and reward good behavior.

"It'll really be encouraging them to behave well instead of throwing them in a cell which doesn't benefit them at all.  Throwing them in a cell just makes them act up more.  They get more agitated...and all the studies show that solitary confinement just makes behavior worse."

Credit lscny.org

He says deputies who work with juveniles will undergo specific training, especially to address behaviors exhibited by those with special education or mental health needs.  The settlement also requires that teens be given the chance to earn regents credits or work toward their GED.  Cotter says perhaps just as critical is discharge planning for juveniles heading back to school, 90 percent of whom attend Syracuse City Schools. 

"Now they'll be re-enrolled while they're in the justice center.  The first day they're out, they can step foot into a city school and get their education if they want to.  That's a big step because before, it took weeks or months, if ever.  You put enough hurdles in front of a kid, and eventually he's going to say this is too hard."

Cotter says it’s all in an effort to try and close the so-called school to prison pipeline.  He acknowledges that many teens land in jail because they’re stuck in a cycle…

"These kids should be getting supports a lot sooner than when they're locked up in the justice center and thrown into solitary confinement.  I hope this lawsuit shines a light on that we should try to stop these kids from ever getting into the justice center and getting them the interventions they need."