Federal lawsuit challenges solitary confinement at NC juvenile detention centers

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Listen to this story (4 minutes)

  • A class-action federal lawsuit challenges solitary confinement within North Carolina's juvenile detention centers.
  • Three John Doe plaintiffs from 15 to 17 years old criticize conditions at the Cabarrus detention center.
  • The suit seeks an injunction blocking future solitary confinement. Plaintiffs also ask the court to appoint a "neutral monitor" to ensure the Department of Public Safety complies with federal orders.

A class-action lawsuit filed Monday in federal court challenges solitary confinement for people confined to North Carolina’s juvenile detention centers. The suit cites the “devastating and long-term effects” of keeping juveniles locked up by themselves.

Three John Doe plaintiffs brought the complaint against the state Department of Public Safety and three DPS leaders. The 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old plaintiffs are confined now to the Cabarrus Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Concord. A separate filing asks the court to allow all three to move forward with the case anonymously.

“Over a decade ago, the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence addressed the harmful effects of solitary confinement of children,” according to the complaint. “This practice was so prevalent and damaging that after an investigation by the United States Justice Department, President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement on juveniles in federal prisons in 2016.”

“Recognizing the harmful effects solitary confinement have on juveniles, over seven years ago, in June 2016, Defendant North Carolina Department of Public Safety (“NCDPS”) announced the end to solitary confinement for inmates in adult correctional facilities who were under 18 years of age,” the lawsuit added.

“Despite the overwhelming consensus that solitary confinement has devastating and long-term effects on juveniles, including depression, anxiety, suicide, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and despite the abandonment of solitary confinement for juveniles throughout the country, NCDPS has embraced a policy, custom, and practice of solitary confinement of children as young as ten years old, who have not had their cases adjudicated yet, at juvenile detention centers across the state of North Carolina, including the Cabarrus Regional Juvenile Detention Center (the “Cabarrus Juvenile Jail”), for nearly 24 hours a day,” the complaint continued.

The suit points to negative impacts on juveniles’ education, behavior, and mental state.

“Solitary confinement has been proven dangerous for all ages, but is especially harmful for juveniles due to their developmental vulnerabilities,” according to the complaint. “It is well established that isolating children and thereby preventing children from having meaningful contact with others increases their risk of suicide and self-harm. For those children that have a mental health challenge or disability, the risk of harm can be even greater. Despite the known dangers to the children in their care and their admission of the harm that solitary confinement causes children, Defendants run the juvenile jails in North Carolina with inadequate staffing that predictably results in children being locked in their cells nearly 24 hours a day. Defendants have chosen this route in the face of public scrutiny and despite open discussions of the current conditions.”

Lawyers working with the three plaintiffs hope their case can apply at least to all juveniles at the Cabarrus center, and the complaint asks the court to apply its ruling to “All juveniles who are currently, or in the future will be, detained in a North Carolina juvenile detention facility operated by NCDPS.”

The suit contends that solitary confinement violates the juveniles’ Eighth and 14th Amendment rights.

“Defendants must be immediately restrained from placing Plaintiffs and the Class in solitary confinement as punishment, discipline, or because there is inadequate staffing, and from placing Plaintiffs in solitary confinement for any reason other than a rare and temporary response to prevent imminent and serious physical harm to persons due to a juvenile’s behavior,” according to the suit.

The John Doe plaintiffs seek an injunction, along with a court-appointed “neutral monitor” to ensure DPS compliance with the court’s orders.