G.H. v. Marstiller

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) places hundreds of children in solitary confinement on any given day. The FJI, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Florida Legal Services filed a federal class action lawsuit to end the use of solitary confinement in the state’s juvenile detention facilities.

The lawsuit cites scientific, medical and mental health evidence likening solitary confinement to torture and demonstrating its dangers to the development and rehabilitation of children. The lawsuit challenges the department’s policy in 21 state-operated secure detention facilities of isolating children in solitary confinement for minor misbehavior.

The lawsuit also describes the department’s failure to provide children with access to school services, recreation or appropriate mental health services – heightening the risk of psychological damage from confinement. Children spend hours or days alone, behind solid, bolted steel doors in tiny cells, with nothing to do but stare at the walls, and without any therapeutic interventions.

Between July 1, 2017, and June 1, 2018, DJJ isolated 4,310 children in solitary confinement a total of 11,738 times, meaning that many children were put in isolation repeatedly. In total, DJJ locked up 14,010 children in FY 2017-18. This means that approximately 30 percent of children were isolated in solitary confinement at some point while locked up.

The suit argues that this practice violates the U.S. Constitution and discriminates against children with disabilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The suit also argues that DJJ officials know about the damaging effects of solitary but have failed to address them.

The lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, 13-year-old G.H., remained in solitary confinement at the Volusia Regional Juvenile Detention Center even after he attempted suicide in his confinement cell, and despite staff’s awareness of the suicide risk. He was put in solitary for, among other things, play- fighting with another child in the facility. 

African-American youth are disproportionately targeted for arrest and solitary confinement, according to research available at the time of the filing. They constitute 22 percent of Florida’s public school enrollment, but 51 percent of juvenile arrests, over 60 percent of children in Department of Juvenile Justice secure detention and 70 percent of children in solitary confinement statewide.

The Court had originally granted Plaintiffs’ Motion for Class Certification, certifying a class of all children who are or will be in solitary confinement in a Florida Department of Juvenile Justice detention facility.

The Court denied DJJ’s Motion for Summary Judgment, but unfortunately decertified the class.  After substantial deliberation, and being unable to proceed as a class, the case was voluntarily dismissed.   However, significant improvements were made because of our lawsuit.  Policies were amended to lower the amount of time children can spend in solitary confinement, data is tracked, and the number of children in DJJ custody has declined.  We will continue to fight on behalf of children and their families who are caught up in the criminal justice system to ensure they are treated with the human dignity they deserve. 

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