Feds: Baltimore jail illegally keeping juveniles in solitary

The Associated Press
U.S. Justice Department says juveniles are in solitary too long in city jail.

Teenagers awaiting trial on adult charges in Baltimore are being kept in solitary confinement far too long — up to 143 days in one case, according to a highly critical review by the U.S. Justice Department's Division of Civil Rights.

Federal prosecutors say being isolated for more than a short period of time can damage a person's mental health — especially if it's a teenager whose brain is still developing.

But teenagers accused of breaking rules inside the Baltimore City Detention Center are being isolated for 13 days on average, and in some cases, far longer.

A federal review found some improvements at the detention center, but concluded that eight years after entering into an agreement with the state of Maryland, the embattled jail is still violating state laws and the U.S. Constitution when it comes to handling teens in custody:

— Very few staffers have any training in adolescent development, trauma, and mental health and developmental disabilities, the review found.

— The jail is failing to provide its teens with drug treatment, anger management programs, education, rehabilitation or even exercise, which the federal prosecutors described as their constitutional right.

— When juveniles are accused of breaking a rule, they are put into seclusion for 7 to 14 days for a first offense, and must wait roughly 80 days before a disciplinary hearing is held.

"This is grossly excessive and violates basic principles of Due Process," reads a Feb. 19 Justice Department letter to jail officials. "It is even more troubling for the 24 percent of juveniles in seclusion who are ultimately found not guilty under the disciplinary process."

Asked for their response, state corrections officials told The Associated Press they are committed to improving the situation.

"The department takes these issues very seriously, and is committed to drastically improving the overall environment for juveniles charged as adults and committed to our care," its statement said.

The Baltimore jail is not unique in this regard — the American Civil Liberties Union estimated last year that at least 17,000 of the roughly 100,000 juveniles held in adult prisons across the country have been subjected to solitary confinement.

Juveniles are often held in isolation in adult jails so that institutions can comply with the "sight and sound separation" requirement under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law whose final standards went into effect in 2012.

But the Baltimore jail already keeps its juveniles separate from adults, and has been on notice for years to stop isolating them.

The Justice Department began investigating the jail 15 years ago, concluding that among other civil rights violations, its practice of keeping youths in cells for lengthy periods was "excessive and potentially harmful."

Eight years have passed since the jail promised the state to change its procedures.

This most recent letter reminded jail officials that "the use of seclusion on juveniles is itself misguided. Separating juveniles and housing them in isolated, harsh conditions merely suppresses behavior on a temporary basis. In the long term, such practices may result in mental deterioration, lead juveniles to engage in self-harm, or exacerbate behavioral issues."

It cites one minor who spent 143 days in seclusion, and another who spent 53 of his 105 days in solitary confinement at the detention center.

The Justice Department said it reviewed documents, interviewed staff and inmates, and conducted an on-site inspection in August 2014 to prepare its report.

Juvenile justice advocates are lobbying Maryland state legislators to automatically send most minors charged as adults to juvenile facilities, rather than adult prisons. A primary reason is to limit their stints in solitary confinement, they say.

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said it has made improving conditions for youth charged as adults "a top priority," and that 30 correctional officers have completed new staff training for working with juveniles.

The department also has converted a nearby facility to house only juvenile offenders and "create a much better environment for the teenagers," its statement said.

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