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State accused of using solitary confinement at juvenile detention center

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(The Center Square) – Three North Carolina teens and their parents are suing the Department of Public Safety and its leaders, accusing officials of using solitary confinement in the state’s juvenile detention centers.

The lawsuit filed Monday by the Council for Children’s Rights and Charlotte attorney Robert Lindholm says youth held at the Cabarrus Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Concord, the C.A. Dillon Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Butner, and other facilities across the state are restricted to individual cells for more than 23 hours a day in violation of their constitutional rights.

“Despite the overwhelming consensus that solitary confinement has devastating and long-term effects on juveniles, including depression, anxiety, suicide, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and despite the abandonment of solitary confinement for juveniles throughout the country, NCDPS has embraced a policy, custom, and practice of solitary confinement of children as young as ten years old, who have not had their cases adjudicated yet, at detention centers across the state of North Carolina … for nearly 24 hour a day,” according to the complaint.

The Center Square was declined response to questions by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

Writing in an email, communications officer Matt Debnam said, “In general, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety does not comment on pending litigation, and, consistent with that policy, will not comment on claims contained within this lawsuit. Additionally, under state law, information contained within juvenile records is confidential and not considered to be public information.”

North Carolina outlawed solitary confinement for minors in 2016, following a change in the federal prison system the same year. State officials say restricting youth to their rooms does not constitute solitary confinement.

The plaintiffs include 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds held at the Cabarrus Regional Juvenile Detention Center since November or December who have requested anonymity. The lawsuit seeks class action status for all juveniles at that facility and requests the court apply any ruling to “All juveniles who are currently, or in the future will be, detained in a North Carolina juvenile detention facility operated by NCDPS.”

The litigation follows complaints from Council for Children’s Rights and others over the last year. William Lassiter, deputy secretary of the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, has said the state confined youth to their rooms in response to significant staffing shortages.

Lassiter, appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper as chairman of the N.C. Task Force for Safer Schools in October 2019, has said the practice does not constitute solitary confinement because those detained are not being punished or held in an isolated unit.

Department officials have detailed efforts to address the staffing shortage, including boosting pay for juvenile justice employees, dozens of recruiting events, and incentive bonuses. The department also has plans to open three new detention centers with the capacity to hold 108 youth.

The lawsuit says the three teens are in 8-by-10 cells at least 23 hours per day for weeks or months at a time, allowed out only to shower, fill water bottles, or for short periods for school or to clean.

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