California county ends solitary confinement for youth with disabilities

Hands on prison bars
Solitary Confinement Case Settled

Contra Costa County will no longer keep children in solitary confinement and will begin providing legally mandated special education services to inmates, under the terms of a legal settlement announced May 19.

“At a time when the nation is re-evaluating the use of solitary confinement, this settlement is of extraordinary public importance,” said Mary-Lee Smith, managing attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, in a news release. “In Contra Costa County, the draconian practice of solitary confinement will come to an end and the focus will be, as it should, on education and rehabilitation. Our hope is that other facilities across the nation will follow suit.”

The Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall, located near San Francisco and home to 300 youth, has long been a lightning rod for disability activists. For years, the facility has routinely held prisoners in isolation for as many as 23 hours per day, a practice known as solitary confinement.

In August 2013, DRA, Public Counsel and Paul Hastings LLP filed a class-action lawsuit (PDF format), accusing the County of violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for failing to provide inmates special education services, and for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, in regard to the larger number of children with disabilities in the facility. At the time the parties filed the lawsuit, 32.9 percent of inmates qualified for special education services.

The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education filed a Statement of Interest, in February 2014, on the plaintiff’s behalf.

During the settlement negotiations, the County Department of Probation and Education Department both publicly stated that the other was responsible for ensuring the inmates are receiving special education services.

The plaintiffs have now entered into separate settlements with both departments, in order to clarify the lines of responsibility.

The Department of Probation is barred from placing youth in solitary confinement for more than four hours, and only where the individual’s behavior imposes an immediate threat to the safety of himself or others. After four hours, the youth must be evaluated to determine if he must be transported to a mental health facility, or otherwise receive additional supervision.

The Education Department is responsible for ensuring inmates receive mandated special education services. It must also hire two experts to recommend new policies.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California will monitor their implementation for a minimum of two years, depending on the County’s compliance with their terms.

“This landmark settlement puts an end to the egregious practice of subjecting children with disabilities to inhumane maximum security-like prison conditions and unconscionable deprivations of education,” said Laura Faer, education rights director with Public Counsel, in the news release. “The promise of this settlement for youth in the juvenile hall is real rehabilitation, support instead of isolation and segregation, and high quality special education services and options.”

The District Court must still grant approval of the settlement.