NC Agency Sued Over Child Solitary Confinement Practice

By Travis Bland | January 9, 2024, 9:21 PM EST ·

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety is violating the constitutional rights of children not convicted of crimes by locking them up alone every hour of the day with little to no relief from confinement, while breaking state law requiring education, according to a proposed class action filed in federal court Monday.

The lawsuit brought by three teenagers held in a North Carolina juvenile jail and their mothers alleges their Eighth and 14th Amendment rights are being trampled by being held every day in solitary confinement and having less than an hour to shower or do anything else outside their cells, if they get any time out at all.

"Far from the rosy public statements put out by NCDPS, the children locked in juvenile detention centers across North Carolina are not receiving 'quality services,' are not in a 'humane environment,' and are not receiving 'basic educational services,'" the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit focuses on what it describes as the mentally and physically degrading practice of keeping kids awaiting court proceedings in solitary confinement at two jails, the Cabarrus Juvenile Jail in Concord and the Dillon Juvenile Jail in Butner. Though focused on these two jails and the suing teenagers being housed at Cabarrus jail, the solitary confinement practice is systemic, judging by studies and the accounts of children's rights advocates, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit names as defendants the state public safety department; its secretary, Eddie Buffaloe Jr.; the deputy secretary of the agency's juvenile justice division, William L. Lassiter; and Peter Brown, the facility director of Cabarrus jail.

Despite knowing the harm that solitary confinement causes children and publicly acknowledging those negative consequences, safety department officials have made it a policy to under-staff juvenile jails and hold kids in their cells frequently for 23 hours and 50 minutes a day, the lawsuit says.

While state law and the department's own policy require providing education to detained children, Cabarrus jail throughout 2023 allowed only a few hours of education per month for only a few children, according to the lawsuit. At Dillon jail, children receive crosswords or word search puzzles slipped under their cell doors for education, it says.

In a new release, law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, representing the teenagers, said the lawsuit alleges "'solitary confinement has devastating and long-term effects on juveniles, including depression, anxiety, suicide, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and despite the abandonment of solitary confinement for juveniles throughout the country, NCDPS has embraced a policy, custom, and practice of solitary confinement of children as young as ten years old, who have not had their cases adjudicated yet, at juvenile detention centers across the state of North Carolina.'"

In the complaint, the three teenagers describe their treatment in Cabarrus jail, saying they're kept in their cells for nearly 24 hours, except for a short time to shower and infrequent days of being let out briefly to watch TV or a class on a laptop. Kids scream at night, bang on their doors and talk through the walls for human contact, they say, risking being put on "temporary confinement," a punishment in which their small exterior window is closed along with a slot in their door that they use to look out into the jail.

A class of children who are or will be detained by the public safety department is proposed, or, as an alternative, those who are held now or in the future at Cabarrus jail.

The lawsuit asks that the court declare the class and that the North Carolina safety department is violating children's Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment as well as their 14th Amendment right to due process and the privilege of an education.

It also asks the court to stop the department from practicing solitary confinement, fix the constitutional violations, appoint a monitor to ensure court orders are implemented and issue an order to preempt retaliation against the plaintiffs.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety gave no comment Tuesday.

The teenagers are represented pro bono by Robert L. Lindholm, Donna O. Tillis, Yasmeen Ebbini, Michelle Campbell And Matthew G. Lindenbaum of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP And Michelle Duprey of Council For Children's Rights.

The case is John Doe 1, et al. v. North Carolina Department of Public Safety, et al., case number 1:24-cv-00017 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

--Editing by Linda Voorhis. 

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