Suit: Jail keeps teens in solitary for months without care, education

One young inmate in solitary confinement at the Palm Beach County jail hallucinated, staring at the blank wall of his cell, thinking he was watching a television show, a federal lawsuit filed Thursday alleges.

A 16-year-old got his teeth knocked out by deputies after flooding his cell with toilet water when his telephone privileges were cut short — a brief moment he could have contact with anyone.

Other juveniles begged deputies for water but were forced to drink the putrid discolored water from the sink attached to their toilet. “I’m not your water boy,” the deputies barked back.

If these teens — in isolation for sometimes up to 16 consecutive months — complained, deputies threatened to send them to the mental health ward where they would be stripped naked then left in a freezing cell wearing only a paper gown that failed to cover their backside.

These are just some of the claims made in the class-action lawsuit against Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, the Palm Beach County School Board, schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy and others in the sheriff’s department that calls for an end to solitary confinement for inmates under age 18.

Sophie’s choice

Teenage males charged by the state attorney’s office as adults are put in solitary for months at a time, spending 23 or 24 hours a day alone in the 6-by 12-foot cell dubbed “the box,” receiving no mental health care and little or no education, according to the lawsuit spearheaded by the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the Human Rights Defense Center in Lake Worth.

Solitary confinement means no music, no television, no human contact. Child inmates get their food on a tray passed through a metal slot of their cell, which is adorned with only a metal cot, a sink, a stainless steel desk and a commode bolted to the wall. A single overhead fluorescent light hangs over each solitary cell.

They are permitted, at most, one hour three times a week of solitary recreation inside a caged basketball court. They are handcuffed every time they leave their cell.

Some of the young jail inmates in the lawsuit, often identified only by initials or first names, were in solitary after fighting. But others were subject to a cruel Sophie’s choice by Bradshaw’s administration, ending up in solitary only because they had co-defendants — “keep-aways” — in the general jail population of juveniles on the 12th floor of the 2,166-bed Main Detention Center on Gun Club Road, the lawsuit states.

The sheriff’s department and the school district violated the constitutional rights of these teenagers — often minorities and developmentally or mentally disabled — by subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment and a lack of due process, the litigation alleges. The teenage boys received no mental health care and little or no regular education and were denied help guaranteed by the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to the 75-page complaint.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Teri Barbera said the office had yet to be properly served with the lawsuit and that the sheriff doesn’t comment on potential or pending litigation as a matter of policy. Efforts to reach a spokesperson for the school district for comment were unsuccessful.

The school district released a statement: 

"The district has just received a copy of the lawsuit and is in the process of reviewing it at this time. However, it is important to note that the school district has no control over the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office policies and practices regarding juveniles, including those held at the county jail or juvenile assessment center."

‘Throwaways of society’

“The sheriff sees these kids as not worthy of constitutional protections,” said Sabarish P. Neelakanta, general counsel and litigation director for the Human Rights Defense Center. “They see these kids as bad kids; they see them as throwaways of society. So they lock them up in these little rooms and forget about them.”

"They see these kids as bad kids; they see them as throwaways of society."
— Sabarish P. Neelakanta, general counsel and litigation director for the Human Rights Defense Center

The nexus of the lawsuit started with Melissa Duncan of Legal Aid Society when the Palm Beach County Public Defender’s Office contacted her about concerns that the teenagers in solitary weren’t getting an education. 

“When I started talking to the kids, they weren’t just getting any education; they weren’t getting anything,” she said.

Duncan, the supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Educational Advocacy Project, then researched other lawsuits around the country.

“So far I found the Palm Beach County practice is the most egregious in terms of the length of the time the kids are left in solitary confinement,” she said. “They feel like they are going crazy.”

None of the incarcerated teens in the lawsuit had been convicted of crimes when they were subject to the box, but had been charged as adults for crimes such as armed robbery, burglary or grand theft auto.

Similar lawsuits have led to calls for reform in several states. Wisconsin reached a settlement this month to end the practice at the state’s youth prison after a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. A judge prohibited the practice temporarily in one Tennessee county to allow another ACLU suit to move forward. In New York, federal court orders recently stopped solitary confinement policies in two jails.

In the Palm Beach County litigation, the powerhouse class-action law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers and Toll has been brought on board. The lawsuit focuses on males in solitary, as females under age 18 charged as adults are kept in the jail’s medical unit.

Going crazy

Nehomie Perceval of West Palm Beach said her son, Jeremy, had been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety before he ended up in solitary. He received none of his medication while in solitary, which was lifted only when attorneys pleaded with the judge to recommend he be taken out of the box, the suit contends.

"I don’t want any other kid to go through that again ... Mentally, it will drive the kid crazy."
— Nehomie Perceval, whose son Jeremy was placed in solitary confinement

“I don’t want any other kid to go through that again, being in solitary confinement,” Perceval said. “A child is a child regardless of what the child did or did not do. Mentally, it will drive the kid crazy. I don’t think anybody should be locked up in a room with just four walls to look at for that long.”

Before his arrest, her son -- identified as J.E. in the lawsuit -- was a 10th-grader of Haitian descent at Lake Worth High School, struggling with his reading. He is quoted in the lawsuit as saying the isolation “does something to you. It’s crazy.”

He lost 20 pounds and started experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations, hearing screaming at night and staring at a blank wall in his cell watching what he believed was a full television show. He served more than five months in solitary.

As with other juveniles charged as adults, juveniles, he filed grievances to get out of solitary but were told they were frivolous. He told lawyers that deputies tormented the young inmates by turning on the emergency lights so they couldn’t sleep or, in his case, leaving him undressed for hours when deputies decided he did not have the correct pants to wear.

When he complained, a deputy told him, “You don’t like it? Don’t get yourself arrested.”

Another inmate, identified as Jeff in the lawsuit, also reported hallucinations, seeing a third arm coming from his body and hearing voices at night. He spent nearly five months in solitary.

“Jeff reports that his father would drive to the parking lot of the jail each night and flash his headlights so Jeff could see them, which would be the only reprieve he had from the constant sense of loneliness,” the lawsuit states. Jeff is now 18.

The psych cell

The threat of being sent to the mental health unit — the “psych cell” — looms large, the lawsuit states. One plaintiff, identified as W.B., said deputies threaten to send teens to the ward if they are too noisy under the ruse that they threatened to commit suicide.

Another plaintiff, identified as Jeziah, said deputies would take what little items he had: socks, sheets, drawings as punishment for talking to other teens in solitary. Jeziah spent a total of 21 months in solitary, including a 16-month stretch.

“One of the problems is that these kids can’t fight back or navigate these policies and how to deal with them,” Neelakanta said. “They are scared. They are frightened.”

The lawsuit alleges retaliation by deputies against Jeziah, now 18, who flooded his cell after a deputy unplugged his telephone call before it was required to end. During the cell extraction, the teenager resisted and had two of his front teeth shattered.

When he returned to solitary, deputies destroyed his dentures and laughed at him, the lawsuit states.

“Another Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office staff member told Jeziah that she would have other inmates assault him if he got out of confinement,” the lawsuit states. “Jeziah called the PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) hotline, but received no follow up in response.”

A fellow teen in solitary said a deputy would warn him he could end up like Jeziah if he misbehaved.

Duncan said the lack of education for these kids is an important part of the lawsuit. Packets of work are shoved under the cell door and they may receive brief moments to speak with a teacher standing outside.

“These children cannot view educational instruction because the windows on their cell doors are scratched up to the point that it is nearly impossible to discern what is being written on the chalkboard, nor are they able to hear the teachers’ lessons through the solid metal doors,” the lawsuit states.

“Additionally, for children with disabilities, highly specialized instruction, accommodations and related services are not offered or meaningfully available in solitary confinement.”

‘Making It Worse’

Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout said solitary confinement of juveniles has been a concern for her office.

“Solitary confinement is a difficult setting, to say the least, for anyone, but when you put children in solitary confinement it has an even greater effect on their mental health, their physical well-being,” she said. “It should really never be used.”

The number of cases of juveniles charged as adults dropped from 2016 to 2017 — falling from 47 to 33. However, since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 20 juveniles have been charged as adults in Palm Beach County so far this year.

“A lot of these kids have a myriad of problems to begin with, which is why they are there,” Haughwout said. “And we are worried solitary confinement only makes it worse.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, in a now 6-year-old report, sent up the flare that solitary was being used against juveniles throughout the country and having a profound effect. Many suffered post-traumatic stress and were more prone to suicide.

In New York, in a celebrated case, 16-year-old Kalief Browder spent two of his three years at the infamous Rikers Island jail complex in solitary after being charged with stealing a backpack. When released, Browder committed suicide in 2015 at age 22.

“Because the adolescent brain is still in early stage development, it is quite susceptible to the harm,” Neelakanta said. “When they are out of custody and receiving treatment, they don’t trust anybody. They don’t trust the adults and they don’t trust anyone around them.”

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