- By John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, responding to a civil rights lawsuit, defended his agency’s policy of placing some juveniles charged as adults in solitary confinement, saying they are hardened young criminals who are well-cared for and whose constitutional rights are respected.
The statement released Wednesday by Bradshaw’s office said the juveniles are placed in “segregated housing cells” for the safety of themselves and others. It said there is no other location in the jail to separate these juveniles. The sheriff’s office also said these teenage inmates can maintain contact with friends and family — a position refuted by lawyers who filed the suit on behalf of the juveniles.
The department said it is in compliance with Florida Model Jail Standards and refuted allegations in the lawsuit that the teenagers in solitary confinement are not receiving medical care or an education.
“Defendants are not deliberately indifferent to the constitutional rights of these inmates,” the sheriff’s statement reads. “There are legitimate security and inmate safety concerns which justify occasional classification housing assignments to segregated housing cells.”
The sheriff’s office noted that the lead plaintiff is facing charges of first-degree murder and robbery with a firearm and has a “hold” on him by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The two-page statement came after the June 21 federal lawsuit claimed widespread constitutional violations for placing juveniles in a 6-by-12-foot cell for 22 to 23 hours a day. The lawsuit said one teenage inmate spent 16 consecutive weeks in solitary confinement.
The Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and Human Rights Defense Center in Lake Worth, which filed the lawsuit, said solitary confinement for juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
“Obviously, we dispute the veracity of the statement based upon the experiences detailed by many of the children who have come in and out of the jail and held in solitary confinement,” said attorney Sabarish Neelakanta, general counsel and litigation director for the Human Rights Defense Center.
The department’s statement, unusual for a government agency involved in pending litigation, didn’t address some of the more severe allegations in the civil rights lawsuit, however.
For instance, it didn’t dispute the lawsuit’s claim that certain deputies taunted young inmates, refused at times to give them fresh water, and knocked the front teeth out of one teenage inmate.
Also, the statement did not address the lawsuit’s claim that the sheriff’s office would send juveniles in solitary confinement to the mental health ward if they complained about their conditions. Once in the mental health ward, they would be stripped naked, given a paper gown to wear and placed in a frigid cell, the suit contends.
Aside from Bradshaw, the lawsuit names key managers at the jail and the Palm Beach County School Board, which is involved in the inmates’ education.
Melissa Duncan, the supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Educational Advocacy Project, took offense at the sheriff’s use of “segregated housing” as a euphemism for solitary confinement.
“The children in PBSO custody are subject to a systemic social isolation and deprivation of educational access,” Duncan said. “PBSO is using the charges against the children in an attempt to evade the drastic effects of solitary confinement.”
The Legal Aid Society and the Human Rights Defense Center are attempting to get class certification for the lawsuit and have filed for a preliminary injunction to halt all placement of juveniles charged as adults in solitary confinement until the lawsuit runs its course.
The sheriff office also noted it is in full compliance with the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, among other accredited programs. Duncan, though, noted that the NCCHC’s 2016 position denounced solitary confinement policies involving juveniles.
The sheriff’s office said it doesn’t interfere with the schooling of the inmates in solitary confinement as alleged in the lawsuit. The school district issued a statement previously saying it was at the mercy of jail policies regarding juveniles.