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Federal lawsuit seeks to ban solitary confinement for Florida children in juvenile detention

The Southern Poverty Law Center joins with two other groups to condemn the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice for a practice they say causes psychological harm and increases the risk of suicide.

TAMPA — More than 4,300 Florida children in juvenile detention centers spent time in solitary confinement over a 12-month period through June 2018, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

That is almost one in three of all children serving juvenile sentences.

Now the Law Center is asking a federal court for a statewide ban on a practice that it equates to a form of torture it says causes psychological harm and increases the risk of suicide.

In a federal class action lawsuit filed in Tallahassee, the group claims that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice uses solitary confinement for a “shocking” number of children as a punishment of choice and sometimes keeps children in isolation for longer than the 72 hours allowed under Florida rules without a hearing. The lawsuit was filed in conjunction with the non-profit groups Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute.

“DJJ officials know the damaging effects of isolation but have failed to address the situation," said Shalini Goel Agarwal, senior supervising attorney for the Law Center. "Children spend hours or days alone, behind solid, bolted steel doors in tiny cells, with nothing to do but stare at the walls, and without any therapeutic interventions.”

RELATED STORY: Tampa forum focuses on reforming Florida’s juvenile justice system

DJJ does not comment on pending litigation, spokeswoman Amanda Slama said Thursday.

The use of solitary confinement has been repeatedly challenged across the United States in recent years.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry opposes the practice and warns it can lead to depression, anxiety and psychosis. And a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice survey of suicides in juvenile detention found that half of the 79 deaths reviewed were by children confined alone.

At least 20 states have banned or put severe restrictions on its use, including New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, and Tennessee. In 2016, President Barack Obama enacted a ban for children in federal prisons through an executive order.

Florida has 21 juvenile detention centers operated by the department.

Youths can be confined for up to eight hours before it must be approved by a center superintendent. Supervisor are expected to review the need for confinement every three hours, which should include face-to-face contract with the youth unless they are sleeping.

Stays in solitary confinement that exceed 24 hours must be approved by a DJJ regional director.

Three youths identified only by their initials are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

B.W., a 16-year-old girl, was put in solitary confinement at the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center for not going to school even though she’s pregnant, according to the lawsuit. She received no medical evaluation before being put in confinement for removing her ankle monitor, it states.

G.H., a 13-year-old boy, was kept in solitary confinement at the Volusia Regional Juvenile Detention Center even after he attempted suicide, the lawsuit states. He was put in solitary for play-fighting another child in the facility.

"Although many states have ended the use of solitary confinement for children because of the damage that it can cause, DJJ still subjects thousands of children to this cruel and inhumane form of punishment every year,” said Andrea Costello, Director of the Institutional Legal Services Project at Florida Legal Services.