Young offenders called it “the box.”
It’s where their world at the Palm Beach County jail shrank to a 6-by-12 foot cell — for months.
In solitary confinement, no music was allowed. No television. No human contact.
If they complained, they were subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse by sheriff’s deputies.
Some of these teens ‒ often charged as adults with brutal crimes ‒ even started hallucinating.
All of this was detailed in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in June on behalf of two juvenile inmates who spent time in the box on the 12th floor of the Main Detention Center on Gun Club Road.
Now the box’s brutal reign is over.
After defending its use of solitary confinement for teenage jail inmates, PBSO is eliminating it in what is being heralded as a landmark settlement.
A new and extensive “segregated housing” policy replaces solitary confinement. All juvenile inmates will have access to a regular school day outside their cell with other young offenders in the general population.
The sheriff’s department will implement a rotating schedule to keep these juveniles away from co-defendants where before they would be put in solitary for administrative, not disciplinary, reasons.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and the Palm Beach County School Board under the settlement vow to make these inmates get education and mental health treatment.
Only teen defendants in protective custody will be subject to a more rigorous confinement.
First in Florida
“It’s a pretty big deal, a first of its kind in Florida, and a good precedent,” said Sabarish P. Neelakanta, general counsel and litigation director for the Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoners’ rights group based in Lake Worth that engages in prisoner rights litigation nationwide. “The sheriff’s office and school board worked hard to address the situation.”
The sheriff’s office admits no wrongdoing in the settlement but agreed to the widespread reforms.
Sheriff spokeswoman Teri Barbera said the department under policy does not comment on legal settlements but added that such cases are often complex and settled in the “best interest of Palm Beach County taxpayers.”
A call for comment from the school district was not returned. The School Board is expected to approve the settlement Wednesday night.
The lawsuit was spearheaded by the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the Human Rights Defense Center. The class-action complaint claimed PBSO and the school district violated the teen inmates’ constitutional rights by subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment and lack of due process.
Now both organizations, as well as designated experts, will oversee implementation of the new policy for a two-year period.
The powerhouse class-action law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers provided logistical support and counsel on how to tackle the issue.
“We have worked hard to protect the constitutional rights of juveniles whose civil liberties are at risk,” said Theodore J. Leopold, co-chair of the firm’s Complex Tort Litigation and Consumer Protection practices.
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