The Contra Costa County Probation Department is ending its use of solitary confinement for youth detained in juvenile hall as part of a settlement agreement that East Bay disability rights' activists announced today. This policy change, which advocates said is an unprecedented move that could serve as a model for juvenile detention facilities around the country, settles a prolonged legal dispute surrounding county probation officials' treatment of youth with disabilities.
The original class-action lawsuit
— which advocacy groups Disability Rights Advocates and Public Counsel filed on behalf of youth in Contra Costa Juvenile Hall — alleged that the county routinely locked young people with disabilities in small cells for up to 23 hours a day. The suit said that these cells barely had enough space for a bed and only had a narrow window that was the width of a hand. The organizations further contended that the youth confined to these cells were illegally denied access to education, including special education classes.
The probation department, under the terms of the new settlement agreement, will no longer use solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool, according
to the advocacy organizations. The agreement states that staff are also barred from using confinement for "administrative convenience, retaliation, staffing shortages or reasons other than a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate harm to the youth or others."
The county will confine a youth resident of juvenile hall to his or her room for no more than four hours — and only if the individual's behavior poses an immediate safety threat, the groups said. The settlement further calls for experts to review the department's practices and implement changes to improve conditions for youth with disabilities. Those experts will monitor the department's actions for two years. The settlement
, which uses the term "room confinement," not "solitary," said:
Staff shall not place youth in continuous room confinement for longer than four hours. After four continuous hours, staff shall return the youth to the general population, develop special individualized programming for the youth, or consult with a qualified mental health professional about whether a youth’s behavior requires that he or she be transported to a mental health facility. As part of the expert review, the experts will consider whether and under what conditions it would be appropriate for the youth to remain in room confinement after the initial four hour period as part of special individualized programming, discussed below.
An agreement with the Contra Costa County Office of Education further stated that the county will retain an outside expert to evaluate its compliance with state and federal special education laws designed to protect the rights of students with disabilities in juvenile facilities.
The announcement of the agreement comes a year after officials with the US Department of Justice and US Department of Education
criticized Contra Costa County for its use of solitary confinement for youth — and for allegedly refusing to let these youth access education during this punishment.
In the Express
' original story on the legal battle, this is how CiCi — mother of one of the defendants — described the impact of solitary confinement on her son:
The whole situation with my son's mental breakdown, I believe, came from juvenile hall. My son has never been withdrawn, not able to speak, not able to think. He couldn't remember dates, times, places. ...
My son continuously tells me, 'Mom, I'm not crazy. I know I should be in school every day.' But somehow with him being in juvenile hall, I just don't see any hope.
In a statement released today, CiCi, who has only gone by her first name to protect her son's identity, said: "It is too late for my son. The damage that Contra Costa County did to him by placing him in solitary confinement for so many days is done. I may never get my baby back, the boy that I knew before they locked him away again and again and again. But I kept fighting for these settlements because I don't want any other mother to go through what I have gone through."
CiCi's son was allegedly in solitary confinement for more than 100 days, suffered a psychotic break, and ended up smearing feces on the wall of his cell, according to his lawyers.
The news of the settlement also comes as East Bay advocates are pushing statewide legislation to limit the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities. Senate Bill 124, from Senator Mark Leno
(D-San Francisco) and co-sponsored by the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
, would establish specific circumstances in which both state and county juvenile correctional facilities would be allowed to use solitary confinement. Similar to the Contra Costa County agreement unveiled today, SB 124 would only permit this kind of confinement in cases in which an individual "poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to the security of the facility" or "poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others that is not the result of a mental disorder." That bill would also establish a four-hour limit.
Despite this new settlement and the criticism last year from the feds, Contra Costa County officials are still disputing the original allegations and downplaying the accusations of the advocates. Terry Koehne, spokesman for the county office of education, told the Bay Area News Group
that students were pulled out of their classrooms for safety and disciplinary reasons and were essentially "sent to their rooms." Koehne said: "This is attorneys padding their pockets at the expense of our students and it's wrong and it's shameful. The only true outcome is that we're looking at having further study (of policies and practices). There's no single pivotal reform achieved by this case, so it did not need to go on 18 months and cost over $1 million."
You can read the full settlement here