Juvenile solitary confinement blocks education, lawsuit claims

Julianne Hing | 3/7/2014, 6 a.m.

The Obama administration has a message for juvenile detention facilities: All kids — even youth with disabilities held in solitary confinement — are entitled to appropriate public education. That was the assertion made in mid-February by the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice when the agencies filed what advocates are calling a rare joint statement in response to a federal lawsuit over how California’s Contra Costa County treats its incarcerated youth.

Advocates allege that the county’s juvenile hall — which serves tony suburbs such as Danville and poorer, working class cities including Richmond — violate the rights of youth with disabilities by locking them up in isolation and denying them access to their education in the process. The lawsuit and the statements by the Obama administration come at a time when the country is grappling with the practice of solitary confinement and its widespread use throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall has held children with disabilities in isolation for up to 23 hours a day with zero contact with others, the lawsuit alleges. One plaintiff had been held in solitary confinement for an estimated 200 days even though the probation department failed to investigate whether the triggering incidents were disability-related. And while in solitary confinement, kids were denied access to the juvenile hall’s attached school, Mt. McKinley, and general and special education services. These practices are a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the lawsuit filed in August by Disability Rights Advocates, Public Counsel and Paul Hastings LLP.

The Obama administration affirmed the rights of kids with disabilities held in juvenile detention, and quoted a departmental task force that concluded, “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement,”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three plaintiffs, all youth of color. “W.B.,” a 17-year-old boy, arrived in Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall with a special order requiring accommodations for a processing disorder he has. But the county probation and education departments failed to provide him with adequate services and his mental health deteriorated quickly, says Mary-Lee Smith, managing attorney with Disability Rights Advocates. When W.B. started hearing voices and believed that people were trying to poison him, he was placed in solitary confinement and removed from Mt. McKinley, the school that operates on the juvenile hall premises. “In the first six months he missed 31 days of school for being in solitary confinement,” Smith says. Every day W.B. was in isolation counted as an unexcused absence, putting him further and further behind in his classes. It wasn’t until W.B.’s mother asked that her son be screened for special education eligibility that the county determined that he was qualified for extra services, but those were limited to 30 minutes of tutoring a week.

Ultimately, W.B.’s time in solitary confinement — totaling some 90 days — triggered a psychotic break that required three weeks of hospitalization. Along the way, the county never inquired whether W.B.’s behavior was disability-related, and yet kept sending him into isolation, the lawsuit alleges. He’s since been diagnosed with psychosis and possible schizophrenia.