FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A civil rights group filed suit Thursday against a Florida sheriff and school district, claiming that juvenile suspects are unjustly kept in solitary confinement without cause and denied a proper education as they await trial as adults.
The Human Rights Defense Center filed suit in federal court against Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and the county school district on behalf of three boys who are 16 and 17. The three are listed only by their initials and are awaiting trial on felony charges that the lawsuit does not disclose.
The lawsuit alleges that the three were kept in solitary for up to seven months and only allowed out of their 6-foot by 12-foot (2-meter by 4-meter) cells for an hour three days a week to exercise alone on a caged basketball court.
Two were put in solitary because authorities didn't want them talking to co-defendants who were also being housed in the jail's juvenile section, not because they violated any rules, the lawsuit says. One of those has been in solitary since December, and the other was in solitary for six months before being returned to the general population, the lawsuit says.
The third was placed in isolation for fighting and released back into the general population after 20 days.
All three suffered mental and physical illnesses because of their lack of contact with other people and their lack of recreation while in solitary, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit says the three also received an inadequate education as they were not allowed out of their cells to attend class. Instead, the lawsuit says, they were forced to listen to teachers through steel doors and try to watch lessons through plexiglass windows that are sometimes so scratched the inmates cannot see out. State law requires juvenile inmates receive an education comparable to children who are not jailed.
The suit does not seek monetary damages, only a judge's order that the jail stop placing juveniles in solitary.
Ted Leopold, a lawyer representing the three, said the sheriff is "committing a horrible breach" of the teens' constitutional rights, including the ban on cruel and unusual punishment, by jailing them in the same manner as "hard-core convicts who have been put away for life."
"They have not been convicted of anything yet," Leopold said.
The sheriff's office said as a general policy it does not comment on pending litigation.
UPDATE: The sheriff's office has filed this response to the lawsuit:
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office operates the Palm Beach County Jail, and is in full compliance with the Florida Model Jail Standards (FMJS). In addition, the jail is accredited by the American Corrections Association (ACA), the Florida Corrections Accreditation Commission (FCAC), the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare (NCCHC).
There are two housing units in the main jail that are used to house juveniles who are being prosecuted as adults. The housing units are designed to hold a total of 48 inmates, and currently house 22 male offenders who are being prosecuted as adults for serious violent offenses, including the Plaintiffs. The Sheriff’s Office engages in the best corrections practices regarding the care, custody, control and safety of all inmates, including the juvenile offenders, who are being prosecuted as adults. The area within the jail where the Plaintiffs are being housed is an area that specifically allows their detention in a safe manner as it is a separate area from adult inmates. There is no other similar location in the jail that would accommodate these unique needs.
The vast majority of the juveniles who are being prosecuted as adults are detained in the general population housing units which all have large open areas that allow social interaction among the inmates and corrections staff. There are currently 4 male juvenile offenders who are being prosecuted as adults for serious violent crimes who are assigned to segregated housing cells within these general population housing units for security reasons. Each of the segregated housing cells are contained in these general housing units and thus there are no juveniles who are completely segregated or isolated from any human contact whatsoever. In addition each housing unit is staffed by a corrections deputy who is physically present in the housing unit and monitors the activities of all of the juvenile inmates.
Plaintiff H.C., is being prosecuted as an adult after being indicted by a Grand Jury on charges of First Degree Murder and Robbery with a Firearm. H.C. will be 17 years old in August of 2018.
H.C. has several juvenile adult offender Co-Defendants that must be separated for security reasons, both for his own safety and the safety of other inmates. Furthermore H.C. has a Homeland Security Hold.
Inmate M.F. is being prosecuted as an adult for Robbery with a Firearm, Aggravated Assault with a Weapon, and Aggravated Battery with a Weapon. M.F. will be 18 years of age in August of 2018. M.F. has a no contact order which requires that he be kept separate from his Co-Defendants. Inmate T.M., who is also being prosecuted as an adult, has been charged with Possession of a Weapon and Ammunition and firearm offenses, including Carrying a Concealed Firearm, and Possession of a Firearm on School Property. He has a disciplinary history in the jail, including starting a physical altercation which, after a due process hearing, resulted in a limited classification assignment to a segregated housing cell within the general population housing unit for his safety and the safety of other inmates. He is no longer in a segregated housing cell.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office does not have a policy or practice of housing juvenile inmates who are being prosecuted as adults in segregated housing cells, in violation of the law. In addition the Defendants are not deliberately indifferent to the constitutional rights of these inmates. There are legitimate security and inmate safety concerns which justify occasional classification housing assignments to segregated housing cells within the housing units. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is charged with the responsibility of taking steps to incarcerate inmates who are being prosecuted for criminal offenses in a reasonably safe manner, including protecting them from themselves in the case of a threat of self harm or suicide and to protect inmates from violence posed by other inmates. There are times when these legitimate security concerns require that an inmate be placed in segregated housing to ensure inmate safety and the orderly operation of the jail facility or to comply with court orders. These concerns also include juvenile gang rivalries and the inmate’s failure to abide by the rules of the jail including violent or disruptive behavior. The Sheriff’s Office Jail Administration also reviews segregated housing classification assignments on a weekly basis in order to identify other housing options that may be available.
Many of the juvenile offenders who are being prosecuted as adults have a history of violent behavior as juveniles as reflected in their juvenile criminal histories.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office also has an agreement with the Palm Beach County School Board and does not in any way interfere with School Board employees’ duties or obligations to provide classroom instruction or other school-related services to inmates, including juveniles being prosecuted as adults, in consideration of reasonable security concerns. In some instances the inmate refuses to attend school. Classroom instruction is provided in the day rooms of the housing units, which is visible through large windows in the segregated housing cell doors, or in a separate classroom setting. Separate classes are conducted at times based upon grade level differences between the juvenile inmates. Furthermore, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office contracts with Armor Correctional Care, which provides licensed medical care providers to provide medical services, including mental health services, to inmates in the Palm Beach County Jail, including juveniles being prosecuted as adults. Inmates are not denied access to medical care.
The juveniles who are being prosecuted as adults have the ability to engage in visitation with family and friends and recreation. In fact, jail staff assist juveniles in the preparation of a list of visitors for this purpose. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office takes very seriously its obligation to safely and constitutionally house juvenile inmates who are being prosecuted as an adult.
The allegations that all juvenile offenders who are being prosecuted as adults are housed in segregated housing cells or are being denied access to education or mental health services in an unlawful manner is false.