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Florida pushes back in battle over its solitary confinement policy

Data provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows the state placed more than 14,000 children in isolation while in the care of the juvenile justice department during the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
Blackwater River Correctional Facility. [Florida Department of Corrections]
Published Nov. 11

TALLAHASSEE — In separate but parallel lawsuits, civil-rights and legal groups are challenging Florida’s use of solitary confinement in prisons and juvenile detention centers — but are facing pushback from state agencies.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute this year sued the state Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice in federal court in Tallahassee, contending the agencies’ practices on isolation are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

But the agencies are fighting back against the allegations, with the latest salvo coming last week as the Department of Juvenile Justice filed a motion to dismiss the juvenile detention case and questioned the motives behind the lawsuit.

“Unfortunately, it is clear that plaintiffs’ purpose in bringing this lawsuit is not to gain relief from some violation of constitutional rights,” the Department of Juvenile Justice motion said. “Rather, it is to lobby this court to judicially impose a level of care that is commensurate with the position papers, opinions, and articles supplied by various advocacy groups.”

The department argued the lawsuit, which was filed in September, is part of an effort by the groups to “move the needle toward their obvious goal of eliminating any form of confinement for juveniles.”

Lawyers for the department also told the court that “there could be risks of harm to the other juveniles, or staff, if confinement is not utilized” because detention facilities can at times be dangerous.

But the lawsuit alleges there is growing consensus among medical and mental-health professionals that subjecting children to isolation can lead them to suffer from “heightened risk of psychological and physical harm.”

“These policies and practices are inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society,” said the lawsuit, which names three teenage plaintiffs, one as young as 13, who were placed in isolation.

At juvenile detention centers, the use of confinement is limited to no more than eight hours unless an extension is granted because the minor “would imminently threaten his or her safety or the safety of others,” according to court documents.

Data provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows the state placed more than 14,000 children in isolation while in the care of the juvenile justice department during the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

As lawyers for the plaintiffs prepare to respond to the Department of Juvenile Justice’s motion to dismiss the case, a federal judge last month allowed the separate lawsuit challenging the Department of Corrections’ confinement policies to continue.

In an Oct. 24 ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker rejected arguments made by the Department of Corrections, saying the arguments were based on a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the claims made in the lawsuit.

“This case is not about the type of restrictive housing or the specific prison where the plaintiffs were housed,” Walker wrote. “Instead, plaintiffs allege a systematic, statewide policy of isolation.”

In the 90-page lawsuit, which was filed in May, attorneys representing inmates argued that prison officials “discriminate against people with disabilities in its use of isolation” and are “deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of harm caused” by isolation practices.

Shalini Goel Agarwal, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Walker’s ruling “accepts the premise that a correctional system, by creating various levels for solitary confinement, cannot evade the undeniable damage caused by locking people in tiny cells for nearly 24 hours a day.”

Outside of court, the Department of Corrections has defended its use of confinement as a safety measure.

Michelle Glady, a department spokeswoman, told The News Service of Florida in May that confinement is used for security reasons or to effectively manage prisons. She added it is only used when “absolutely necessary.”

After the judge’s decision last month to allow the case to continue, the department is prepared to keep mounting a defense of the isolation practices.

“The department is moving forward with litigation,” Glady said Thursday.

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