The youths, who were charged with crimes as adults, have spent at least 23 hours a day locked in windowless stalls without adequate, constitutionally required educational services, the lawsuit says.
A group of teens in custody at King County’s Maleng Regional Justice Center (RJC) and their guardians have filed a federal lawsuit against the county after the teens allegedly spent days or months in solitary confinement.
Claiming King County’s practices violate equal-protection clauses and constitutional guarantees, the 38-page complaint prepared by a Seattle law firm seeks to end the county’s practice of putting 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement.
The complaint applies to teens in King County whom prosecutors have charged with crimes as adults, meaning they bypass the juvenile-court process due to the violent or extreme nature of their crimes.
The suit also alleges the RJC, in Kent, unlawfully denies those teens proper educational services while in custody.
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“Children held in isolation have little to nothing to do in their cells: no meaningful human interaction, little to no educational activities, no music or television, little access even to reading or writing materials,” the firm says. “When allowed out of their cells, any ‘recreation’ takes place alone in an empty, concrete pen.”
In response to requests for comment from the county Tuesday, a spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine responded via email. “We just received the complaint, and we’re looking into each of the allegations,” spokesman Alex Fryer wrote.
Also, he said the office is in contact with Columbia Legal Services, the firm that filed the lawsuit on behalf of a group including a 16-year-old and two 17-year-olds who are awaiting trials for their criminal cases at RJC. No further details on them was immediately known.
In August, Constantine named Deputy Executive Rhonda Berry to lead countywide efforts on reforming youth detention. “That work is continuing,” Fryer wrote.
According to Columbia Legal Services, each of the teens has spent days or months in complete isolation — a practice that negatively affects their emotional, physical and mental well-being, as well as cuts them off from legal guarantees of a meaningful education.
And such treatments disproportionately affect juveniles of color — they made up 86 percent of the youth population charged as adults in 2016 and the entire group the year before, the lawsuit says.
“They typically spend at least 23 hours a day locked in small, stark cells absent any windows or natural light, sometimes with no more than 15 minutes out of isolation every three days,” the firm said. A typical cell has a stainless-steel toilet, sink, mattress and overhead fluorescent light, with concrete walls and floors, the lawsuit says.
In terms of daily educational lessons, the lawsuit says one instructor is responsible for teaching all young people at RJC, spending anywhere between 60 minutes and just a few minutes with students.
Nick Straley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, said staff conducted a monthslong investigation before filing the lawsuit Friday, a process that required building intimacy with detained teens and talking with their families.
As of Monday, he said “six children were in isolation.”
“We want to ensure that the jail begins to treat children like children,” Straley said,
Groups have staged protests over months to put pressure on city and county politicians to reconsider their plans for a new youth-detention center in Seattle’s Central Area.
King County voters approved a $210 million, property-tax levy for that project in 2012, agreeing to replace the county’s existing youth-detention center and dilapidated courthouse with new facilities. Construction is underway.
The complaint points to the new jail as being “unnecessary” and harmful,” saying authorities should instead focus on properly educating and treating young people at RJC.