Grays Harbor County Settles ACLU Lawsuit Over Teen Solitary Confinement

Grays Harbor County has agreed to pay $45,000 and to make policy changes to settle a lawsuit over its placement of teens in solitary confinement.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in March on behalf of a mother who said her now 17-year-old son was repeatedly placed in solitary for minor infractions, such as talking back or leaving a glob of toothpaste on his door, and that he was subjected to filthy conditions and denied adequate food.

The ACLU said his treatment amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

The county admitted no wrongdoing under the terms of the settlement, but it has revised its policies, including clarifying that juvenile isolation may be used only in certain circumstances and that those in isolation must have adequate bathroom amenities and food.

The ACLU of Washington and Grays Harbor County have agreed to a settlement in the lawsuit filed by the mother of a now 17-year-old boy who was repeatedly put into solitary confinement, subjected to filthy conditions, and denied adequate food while in the Grays Harbor County Juvenile Detention Facility. The settlement, approved by the U.S. District Court for Western Washington, presses the County to make the use of isolation of juveniles in detention a last resort, not a routine practice.

Under the settlement, the County will change its juvenile detention policy so that it is consistent with the rules of the state juvenile prison system in Washington. The state policy requires that, if involuntary isolation is used at all, it must be only a temporary means to address an immediate threat of harm, escape, or substantial disruption. Additionally, on the rare occasions when isolation is used, the County will ensure improved conditions, including providing a mattress and bedding, access to a toilet and sink hourly, the same meals as other youth in the facility, reading material, and visits. The plaintiff will also receive compensation for his suffering and deprivation of constitutional rights.

“This settlement sends a strong message to counties across the state that their policies and practices cannot violate the constitutional rights of youths in detention,” said ACLU-WA Senior Staff Attorney Nancy Talner. “Solitary confinement is inhumane. Longstanding research shows it profoundly harms children, so we were shocked to find it being used in a juvenile detention facility in Washington State routinely, repeatedly, and for a prolonged time period.”

The ACLU-WA filed the lawsuit in March 2017 on behalf of Theresa Doe and her son M.D. It described how Grays Harbor County repeatedly subjected M.D. to isolation in violation of his constitutional right to due process and the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

M.D. was repeatedly detained in the Grays Harbor County Juvenile Detention Facility for a period spanning three years, largely for minor probation violations. Detention staffers placed him in solitary confinement more than 40 times for a total of about 75 days. At various times he was locked in his cell for at least 23 hours a day, had all items removed from his cell, was barred from contact with other people, had family visits cancelled. During one 8-day stretch, he was locked in a padded cell that was spattered with food and blood, with a feces-covered grate over a hole in the ground that had been used as a toilet, and was given only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and water.

M.D. was locked in solitary confinement for minor infractions like talking back, leaving a glob of toothpaste on the door to his room, passing notes, spilling water, “being rude,” and cursing.

Isolation from other people is not only particularly harmful to children, who are still developing and vulnerable, studies have shown it is ineffective at improving behavior: it exacerbates stress and other mental health conditions, and its use makes institutions less safe. This is why there is a growing national trend to prohibit putting kids in solitary confinement for common teenage misbehavior.

Courts and corrections and medical professionals across the country recognize that, even for adults serving years in prison for violent felonies, solitary confinement causes serious harm and should be used only sparingly. M.D. was no such adult. He was a child, in the temporary care of County officials. Because their brains are still developing, children are more susceptible to the prolonged stress that comes from being isolated in prisons and jails. This stress can inhibit development of parts of the brain—such as the pre-frontal cortex, which governs impulse control— causing irreparable damage. Recognizing these scientific findings, at least 21 states have prohibited the use of solitary confinement to discipline juveniles.

Many law enforcement and juvenile justice organizations (including proposed standards by the American Correctional Association, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, and the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative) recommend that juveniles be placed in solitary confinement only to protect the youth from harming self or others, and only for short supervised periods. This practice is consistent with the majority of state jurisdictions and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which have banned use of isolation of juvenile detainees for any period longer than 4 hours.

Unfortunately, Washington still permits solitary confinement of juveniles for longer periods.  Juvenile prisons and jails across Washington should revise their policies and implement evidence-based best practices, reinforcing a rehabilitative culture and developing alternative behavior management options.

“Under the Constitution, the County is supposed to reserve the harsh sanction of solitary confinement for circumstances such as when a juvenile might be violent and hurt someone. We are pleased that the County has agreed to make steps toward limiting use of this inhumane practice,” said David Whedbee, cooperating attorney for ACLU-WA.

Representing the plaintiffs are ACLU-WA cooperating attorney David J. Whedbee of MacDonald, Hoague & Bayless, and Nancy Talner, ACLU-WA Senior Staff Attorney.

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