By Dave McCleary
In a case that has made headlines in recent local and national news, a young African American lawyer has been working diligently behind the scenes on behalf of the Syracuse NAACP to bring the plight of Black and Brown teens to the forefront of the case.
The New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed a lawsuit in December, which claims the Onondaga County Justice Center routinely used solitary confinement as a disciplinary method for 16 and 17 year old teenage inmates—regardless of the juveniles’ mental health history, and typically for minor offenses. The Syracuse City School District was also named in the lawsuit, for failing to adequately educate the teens when they are confined.
The Syracuse NAACP immediately signed onto the lawsuit claiming that African American and Latino inmates were disproportionately affected by the practice.
Lanessa L. Owens, Esq., a staff attorney with the Volunteer Legal Project and Chair Person for the NAACP Legal Committee filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the NAACP.
“An amicus brief is a petition to a court that is usually done by an outside organization who has something additional to add to the lawsuit,” Owens stated. “The NYCLU and Legal Services of New York filed a preliminary injunction asking the judge to stop putting the children in solitary confinement.”
The injunction was based on recent mental health statistics, and a lack of education while the juveniles were held in solitary confinement. The injunction also cited the fact that the confinement was done on a discretionary basis—any officer could place a juvenile in confinement for any reason.
“In addition, what we (the Syracuse NAACP) added to the case was the fact that the practice disproportionately affected people of color, in particular Black children,” Owens said. “When you have a case like this brought on by organizations like the NYCLU and Legal Services, they usually focus on the concrete issues. The amicus brief says ‘here are all the other consequences that are happening as a result…”
Federal Judge David Hurd recently ordered the Onondaga County Justice Center to immediately stop placing 16- and 17-year old inmates in solitary confinement. Interestingly, Judge Hurd cited the NAACP’s amicus brief in his decision, acknowledging that racial bias existed in this case.
“Plaintiffs have submitted substantial, convincing evidence that the Onondaga County defendants’ continued use of solitary confinement on juveniles puts them at serious risk of short- and long-term psychological damage, and that the related deprivation of education services by both defendants hinders important aspects of their adolescent development,” Judge Hurd wrote in his decision. “In addition, the NAACP’s brief identifies additional data tending to show that disciplinary isolation is disproportionately meted out to juveniles of color. As the NAACP’s brief explains, “[r]acial disparities have long persisted where authorities have greater discretion.”
Hurd has also denied SCSD’s request for a summary judgment in order to be removed from the case, stating that the district “shall immediately afford all eligible juveniles the educational instruction to which they are entitled under New York State’s laws and regulations.”
According to a statement from the NYCLU in September, “since October of 2015, the sheriff has placed at least 86 children in shocking and dehumanizing solitary confinement conditions over 250 times, forcing them to spend 23 hours a day locked in tiny cells where, in some instances, there is visible feces and urine on the floor.”
Owens said there were a total of 363 children placed in solitary confinement, and 329 of them were black. “The stats provided to us by the Justice Center did not include a category identifying Latino or Hispanic.”
In response to the accusations, chief deputy of the custody department Esteban Gonzalez has previously said jail staff checks on the teens regularly when they are housed in solitary confinement, and that the inmates get an hour of exercise and interaction each day. However, the Justice Center has declined to comment on Hurd’s decision.
“There’s quite a bit of research that shows once a person is incarcerated the racial bias is magnified—in particular in the upstate prison system,” Owens stated.
New York and North Carolina are currently the only two states in which all youth are prosecuted as adults when they turn 16 years old, which, according to the NYCLU, can result in juvenile inmates often being placed in solitary confinement.
Owens also noted that only upstate New York still uses the disciplinary practice of placing juveniles in solitary confinement. “Downstate, places like Riker’s Island, they have already banned solitary confinement of juveniles.”
“One of the reasons we were so successful is because we had the entire community behind us,” she said.
According to Owens, there were many additional community organizations that also signed on to the petition, including The William Herbert Johnson Bar Association of Central NY, Peace Inc., the Center for Community Alternatives, the Minority Bar Association, the Alliance Network and the National Action Network.
“We already know that there is racial bias in the criminal justice system before a person goes to jail, but how often do we consider what happens after one is incarcerated?” she said. “How are they treated in comparison to their white counterparts who are also there for similar crimes?”