Feds sue Ohio over seclusion at juvenile prisons
Friday, March 14, 2014 12:00 AM
By KANTELE FRANKO
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking a court order to force Ohio juvenile prisons to stop what federal officials describe as rampant use of solitary confinement to discipline boys with mental health disorders, a practice the state says is a last resort.
A motion filed Wednesday in federal court in Ohio seeks a temporary restraining order to limit seclusion at four juvenile facilities. The Justice Department alleges Ohio violates the boys’ due process rights by depriving them of education, exercise and mental health care, then doesn’t change their treatment when they return to the general population to address the effects of solitary confinement or the problems that led to seclusion.
“The state secludes boys with mental health disorders at the facilities a tremendous amount, the state knows it, and the state won’t address it,” the Justice Department wrote. “If these boys are to be protected from the irreparable harm of excessive and repeated seclusion, it is up to this court to protect them.”
The Ohio Department of Youth Services said it secludes juveniles as a last resort and still offers treatment and programming in those cases.
“Addressing youths’ mental health needs is absolutely critical in our work of rehabilitating youth,” spokeswoman Kim Parsell said in a statement, noting that youth are provided “individualized, evidence-based behavioral health services” and activities.
The federal government’s latest request adds to its 2008 lawsuit raising concerns about solitary confinement and inadequate mental health services in Ohio’s youth system. The government says the monitor in the case investigated the use of seclusion for part of last year and expressed concerns but that the state has not made policy changes or taken other remedial action on the issue.
Parsell said she couldn’t respond in detail because of the pending case but noted that the agency reviews seclusion to make sure it is used only as a last option.
The Wednesday filing charged that seclusion has become the system’s typical method of dealing with mentally ill boys.
It said at least 10 boys at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility in central Ohio spent at least one-tenth of their time in seclusion between April and September of last year. That facility is slated to close in May.
One youth at the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility south of Columbus spent about 45 percent of his time in seclusion over six months, with the longest stretch lasting about 19 days, and he showed “self-injurious behavior” and was on suicide watch, according to the motion. Another spent about one-third of his time alone, including three straight weeks, it said.
Federal authorities want the court to limit solitary confinement for mentally ill boys to no more than 24 hours without exercise, education or other programming; no more than three consecutive days; and no more than three days within a 30-day period unless officials review a youth’s mental health treatment plan and take other steps. They also say use of restraints shouldn’t be substituted for seclusion.
Much has changed in Ohio’s juvenile prisons in the decade since a different lawsuit alleged a culture of violence in the system. It has closed several juvenile prisons in recent years as more young offenders go to locally run facilities, meaning those still in state facilities are often older and more violent.
The state now houses about 450 juveniles.