By Julianne Hing.

The Obama administration has a message for juvenile detention facilities: all kids—even youth with disabilities held in solitary confinement—are entitled to appropriate public education.

That was the assertion made in mid-February by the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice when the agencies filed what advocates are calling a rare joint statement in response to a federal lawsuit over how California’s Contra Costa County treats its incarcerated youth.

Advocates allege that the county’s juvenile hall—which serves tony suburbs such as Danville and poorer, working class cities including Richmond—violate the rights of youth with disabilities by locking them up in isolation and denying them access to their education in the process. The lawsuit and the statements by the Obama administration come at a time when the country is grappling with the practice of solitary confinement and its widespread use throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall has held children with disabilities in isolation for up to 23 hours a day with zero contact with others, the lawsuit alleges. One plaintiff had been held in solitary confinement for an estimated 200 days even though the probation department failed to investigate whether the triggering incidents were disability-related. And while in solitary confinement, kids were denied access to the juvenile hall’s attached school, Mt. McKinley, and general and special education services. These practices are a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the lawsuit filed in August by Disability Rights Advocates, Public Counsel and Paul Hastings LLP.

The Obama administration affirmed (PDF) the rights of kids with disabilities held in juvenile detention, and quoted a departmental task force that concluded, “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement,”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three plaintiffs, all youth of color. “W.B.,” a 17-year-old boy, arrived in Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall with a special order requiring accommodations for a processing disorder he has. But the county probation and education departments failed to provide him with adequate services and his mental health deteriorated quickly, says Mary-Lee Smith, managing attorney with Disability Rights Advocates. When W.B. started hearing voices and believed that people were trying to poison him, he was placed in solitary confinement and removed from Mt. McKinley, the school that operates on the juvenile hall premises. “In the first six months he missed 31 days of school for being in solitary confinement,” Smith says. Every day W.B. was in isolation counted as an unexcused absence, putting him further and further behind in his classes. It wasn’t until W.B.’s mother asked that her son be screened for special education eligibility that the county determined that he was qualified for extra services, but those were limited to 30 minutes of tutoring a week.

Ultimately, W.B.’s time in solitary confinement—totaling some 90 days—triggered a psychotic break that required three weeks of hospitalization. Along the way, the county never inquired whether W.B.’s behavior was disability-related, and yet kept sending him into isolation, the lawsuit alleges. He’s since been diagnosed with psychosis and possible schizophrenia.

Contra Costa County has three tiers of solitary confinement, mandating isolation from between 22.5 to 23 hours a day. According to the county’s Department of Education an estimated 32.7 percent of students held in the juvenile hall have a disability that requires a specialized education plan and all are subject to the same kinds of policies that deny education to kids and fail to screen whether infractions are disability-related. Some 1,300 young people move through the juvenile hall every year, says Smith.

W.B.’s experience is in line with what psychiatrists and child development experts have warned about the impacts of solitary confinement, namely that it can exacerbate and even cause mental illness. “In no way, shape or form could anyone say that placing someone in solitary confinement does not harm them and have lasting effects,” says Amy Fettig, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have warned that solitary confinement puts people at serious risk of psychological harm. Prison reform advocates have long argued that for people with mental illness, the practice amounts to torture. 

The dangers are indeed stark. More than half of the children who committed suicide while held in juvenile detention did so while isolated in their rooms (PDF). And more than 60 percent of youth who commit suicide in detention have a history of being held in solitary confinement. Still, on any given day, an estimated 70,000 youth are held in solitary confinement around the country.

Contra Costa County, for its part, has yet to own up to the lawsuit’s allegations. “The County Office of Education continues to place high importance on this case, and all matters related to students’ rightful access to public education,” Contra Costa County Department of Education spokesperson Peggy Marshburn says in an email. “But … the lead agency responsible for the safety and security of the students in juvenile hall is the Department of Probation.”

In its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the Department of Probation meanwhile says it has no control over the practices of the Department of Education. In its statement of interest, the Obama administration told the two to quit pointing fingers at each other because both agencies in fact are responsible.

Solitary confinement of youth with disabilities amounts to a particularly vicious school-to-prison pipeline operating within the juvenile justice system. When youth in Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall are “suspended” from the detention center’s attached school, they’re commonly held in solitary confinement, where they’re barred from school and rehabilitative programs like anger management classes and group counseling sessions. “Solitary confinement of youth with mental disabilities exacerbates their disability so when they get out of solitary confinement they have a much harder time reintegrating,” says Disability Rights Advocates’ Smith. “As a result, solitary confinement becomes almost a cycle. Youth come out of [isolation] not feeling like it was an effective deterrent, but sometimes even more agitated than before they went in.”

And without access to resources to keep up with their schoolwork, their chances of graduating from high school on time or at all dwindle. What advocates fear is that the juvenile justice system begins to operate as a feeder of young people, denied access to appropriate mental health care and education, from the juvenile to the adult correctional system.

Others are picking up on the message. The Senate recently convened its second-ever hearing on the practice. And New York state has announced sweeping reforms that will scale back the use of solitary confinement for youth, pregnant inmates and those with disabilities. After years of advocacy, state corrections departments and legislatures, including those in Texas, California and Colorado are reconsidering the utility of solitary confinement, all of which makes the Obama administration’s actions more timely, say advocates.

“For the first time in decades the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has become quite active under the Obama administration especially regarding issues of solitary confinement with people with disabilities,” says the ACLU’s Fettig. “It’s a national reckoning. The country is now reflecting on what exactly happens behind prison walls.”

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This piece was originally published on Colorlines.

Julianne Hing is a reporter and blogger for covering immigration, education, criminal justice, and occasionally fashion and pop culture.