SEATTLE – 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, but the judge who oversees the county’s juvenile detention policies insists the new ones aren’t any stricter than the old ones.
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 and violated his right to due process.
“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,” ACLU attorney Nancy Talner said in a written statement. “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 county admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, which was approved by U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma on Monday. But it agreed to revise its policies to bring them in line with those of the state Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, including clarifying that solitary may be used only in certain circumstances, that it should be used for the minimum time necessary, and that those in isolation must have adequate bathroom amenities and food. The county agreed to train all juvenile detention staff on the new policies by Dec. 1.
According to the ACLU, the boy was repeatedly detained at the Grays Harbor County Juvenile Detention Facility over three years, often for minor probation violations. The organization, which also sued the county last year under the Public Records Act to obtain information about its juvenile detention, found that he had been placed in solitary more than 40 times.
Most of those incidents involved confining him in his room for periods of up to 24 hours. Among the offenses that landed him there: passing notes, spilling water and cursing.
But, the ACLU said, “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.”
Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge Dave Edwards, who oversees policies at the juvenile detention facility, acknowledged it was wrong to place him in the padded cell, which is supposed to be used only for those who are out of control or pose a danger. But he said the boy was in the cell for five nights and four days, not eight, and he noted that he suspended the two employees responsible without pay for 30 days and seven days.
“It was a violation of our policy,” he said. “I didn’t need to get sued by the ACLU to know that.”
He disputed many of the ACLU’s findings, saying the boy’s behavior was severely problematic and had continued to escalate despite earlier efforts by staff, who he said showed “great restraint” in their handling of him.
Edwards also said the new policies are no stricter than the old ones and won’t alter the facility’s practices.
But David Whedbee, a Seattle lawyer who worked with the ACLU on the case, said the policy changes are not merely cosmetic. Among the most important, he said, require that staff not keep kids alone longer than necessary and that they check in with detainees who have been disciplined by being locked in their rooms for more than an hour.
If a juvenile is placed in isolation in a room without standard amenities, staff must check in on them up to six times within the first 24 hours to determine if it’s still necessary.