BERKELEY CALIFORNIA, May 19, 2015 – In an unprecedented settlement announced today, the Contra Costa County Probation Department has agreed to end its use of solitary confinement for all youth detained in Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall (“Juvenile Hall”) and the Contra Costa County Office of Education has agreed to ensure the provision of appropriate education services to youth with disabilities. In the wake of growing national concern about the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, this is the first case in the nation to bring such a sweeping end to the use of solitary confinement for young people.
The settlement resolves a hard-fought lawsuit – G.F. et al. v. Contra Costa County et al. – which was filed by Disability Rights Advocates and Public Counsel with pro bono partners. The suit alleged that the Defendants routinely locked young people with disabilities in cells that had barely enough room for a bed and only a narrow window, the width of hand, for up to 23 hours a day and deprived them of education, including special education.
“At a time when the nation is re-evaluating the use of solitary confinement, this settlement is of extraordinary public importance,” said Mary-Lee Smith, Managing Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. “In Contra Costa County, the draconian practice of solitary confinement will come to an end and the focus will be, as it should, on education and rehabilitation. Our hope is that other facilities across the nation will follow suit.”
Under the settlement agreement with the Contra Costa County Probation Department, the County will no longer use solitary confinement (also known as room confinement) for punitive reasons, discipline, or for expediency. In line with national standards, the County may segregate a youth in his or her room for no more than four hours and only if the youth’s behavior threatens immediate harm to themselves or others. After four hours, the Department must remove the youth from confinement, develop specialized individualized programming for the youth, or assess whether the youth should be transported to a mental health facility. The settlement also calls for two joint experts to review the Department’s practices, implement changes to improve conditions for young people with disabilities, and monitor compliance for two years.
“This landmark settlement puts an end to the egregious practice of subjecting children with disabilities to inhumane maximum security-like prison conditions and unconscionable deprivations of education,” said Public Counsel Education Rights Director Laura Faer. “The promise of this settlement for youth in the juvenile hall is real rehabilitation, support instead of isolation and segregation, and high quality special education services and options. If the Defendants bury the hatchet and focus on implementation, Contra Costa can become a model for the state and the Nation.”
Under the settlement agreement with the Contra Costa County Office of Education, the County Office of Education will retain an outside expert to evaluate its compliance with federal and state special education laws and to ensure that the students with disabilities in Juvenile Hall receive the special education that they need. The expert will make recommended revisions to policies, procedures and practices as they relate to Child Find, development and implementation of individualized education plans, and discipline and monitor compliance for two years.
“They kept me from school for little things and had all sorts of excuses to keep me in my cell. I missed so many days of school as a result, and you can never get those back,” said Q.G., a named plaintiff in the case who was placed in solitary confinement for more than 100 days. “All of those missed days of school are the reason I am so far behind now. Without a good education, you feel hopeless about your life and future. These settlements are really important because they will give a better chance to the kids who will be in the hall to change their lives around, not do anything else that gets them locked up, and have a better future.”
Though the settlements are separate, they call for considerable coordination between the Probation Department and the County Office of Education, including creation of a multi-disciplinary team that will also include County Mental Health to discuss a continuum of placements based on the special education needs of youth, including a process for approving and placing students in non-public schools and residential placements outside of the hall. Instead of finger-pointing, the settlement is designed to create a collaborative environment in which rehabilitation, not punishment, can take place.
“It is too late for my son. The damage that Contra Costa County did to him by placing him in solitary confinement for so many days is done. I may never get my baby back, the boy that I knew before they locked him away again and again and again,” said CiCi, the mother of named plaintiff W.B., who was placed in solitary confinement for more than 100 days, suffered a psychotic break, and was found smearing feces on the wall of his cell. “But I kept fighting for these settlements because I don’t want any other mother to go through what I have gone through.”
Last year, the federal Department of Justice and Department of Education weighed in on the case, saying the county appeared to be violating teens’ rights by locking them in solitary confinement. A Justice Department filing concluded: “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement,” which could lead to paranoia, anxiety, depression and suicide risk.
The parties will file for preliminary approval of the settlement agreements in the coming month. The district court will then order notice to class members and hold a final fairness hearing on the settlement agreement to determine whether it will approve the settlements.
With offices in New York and California, Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) is one of the leading nonprofit disability rights legal centers in the nation. Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. dralegal.org
Public Counsel is the nation’s largest pro bono law firm with a 40-year history of fighting for the rights of students, children, families, and others in need of justice. www.publiccounsel.org
Mary-Lee Smith, Disability Rights Advocates, (510) 665-8644
Marie Condron, 213-925-9605 and Laura Faer, Public Counsel, (213) 309-8730