Onondaga County Juvenile Solitary Confinement Class Action

Case Type: Prison Litigation

Organizations: Onondaga County Justice Center

Counsel from Sanford Heisler Sharp joined the New York Civil Liberties Union (“NYCLU”) and Legal Services of Central New York (“LSCNY”) in representing a class of 16- and 17-year-old Plaintiffs who are or will be held in solitary confinement at the Onondaga County Justice Center, a jail located in Syracuse, New York. The case, filed in September 2016 and led by six Black and Latino Plaintiffs, challenged the constitutionality of locking youth in solitary confinement, often for weeks or months at a time, and depriving them of educational services required by law.

At the Justice Center, youth were routinely punished with solitary confinement and kept in shocking and dehumanizing conditions, spending 23 hours a day in tiny locked cells. In some instances, they were forced to sleep in cells with urine or feces on the floor. Young girls were made to shower without curtains under the supervision of male guards. The youth were not permitted to talk to other detainees and received virtually no appropriate education or mental health care.

In February 2017, U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd granted class certification in the matter, which allowed the prospective Plaintiffs, many of whom are individuals with qualifying disabilities under the federal IDEA, to pursue injunctive relief against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office and Syracuse City School District for their treatment while incarcerated at the Justice Center. Soon after, he issued a preliminary injunction in the landmark case, setting the stage for the settlement.

In June 2017, the parties reached a settlement agreement that would put an end to the jail’s use of 23-hour-per-day solitary confinement for juveniles and would ensure access to educational instruction and special educational services. The settlement is structured to continue through October 2019, subject to court approval.

Sanford Heisler Sharp's Aimee Krause Stewart was a Fellow at NYCLU when the suit originated and served as counsel for the youthful plaintiffs. Stewart continued to assume a significant pro bono role in the matter since joining Sanford Heisler Sharp's Washington, DC, office in October 2016.