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Fees paid in HRDC suit over juvenile solitary confinement at FL jail

Palm Beach Post, Oct. 20, 2019.

Ending sheriff’s policy on juvenile solitary costs taxpayers $420k

“The box” at the jail may be history, but the sheriff’s practice of putting juvenile male inmates in solitary confinement will now come with a $420,000 price tag for taxpayers.

A federal magistrate on Oct. 10 awarded $390,900 in attorney fees and $29,700 in fees to be paid by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the school district following a settlement of a civil rights that stopped solitary confinement for teens charged as adults.

Inmates detailed the nightmare existence of living in solitary for months on end in the lawsuit filed last summer by the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and Human Rights Defense Center in Lake Worth.

The groups claimed solitary confinement for juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

The young inmates in solitary were often refused fresh water, showers, education and medical treatment. They were also subjected to taunts and beatings by guards, the lawsuit contended.

One inmate said he started hallucinating from the stress of being confined in solitary 23 out of 24 hours a day, watching a non-existent television on the blank wall of his 6 by 12-foot cell.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw initially pushed back on the lawsuit. He said in July 2018 that the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit were hardened young criminals charged as adults and denied that they were refused medical treatment or schooling.

But the sheriff and school district ended up coming to the table and hammering out a novel settlement that was a first in Florida and is said to be a blueprint for other jails to follow across the country.

“I think they saved themselves a ton of money not let letting this go to trial. Nevertheless, it cost them a good amount not dealing with this right away,” said Sabarish P. Neelakanta, the lead civil rights attorney for the plaintiffs.

The 11 lawyers in the case sought a total of $660,000 in fees and costs, but U.S. Magistrate William Matthewman reduced the amount about a third.

Sheriff spokeswoman Teri Barbera has said any legal settlements made by the department are in the “best interest of Palm Beach County taxpayers.”

She emphasized this week that the bill will be shared between PBSO and the school district.

For taxpayers, it still comes out of their pockets as residents continue to pay for public servants’ failures.

In January 2018, PBSO agreed to pay $325,000 to a Belle Glade family to settle a wrongful death lawsuit in the shooting of a 19-year-old man killed six seconds after a deputy pulled him over for driving without a seatbelt.

And Bradshaw has said PBSO won’t pay the remaining $22.2 million of a settlement owed to Dontrell Stephens, a West Palm Beach man left paralyzed when he was shot by a deputy. Bradshaw says the state Legislature must approve the largest settlement in PBSO history, forcing lawyers for Stephens to lobby lawmakers.

The school district also regularly settles lawsuits at taxpayers’ expense. For instance, a former technology specialist for Palm Beach County public schools learned this week that she will receive $155,000 to resolve her claim that the school district fired her for accusing a supervisor of racial bias.

The school district also in September 2017 said it would pay $185,000 to the family of an autistic 7-year-old left unsupervised and forced to perform sex acts by other students at Addison Mizner School in Boca Raton.

Neelakanta, who represented the Human Rights Defense Center in the lawsuit, said the fees will hopefully be a deterrent to denying constitutional rights to young inmates.

Federal law allows for the recovery of fees so lawyers can work on behalf of the disenfranchised to bring expensive and time-consuming civil rights cases.

The lawsuit ended solitary confinement for juvenile males charged as adults. Females charged as adults were kept separately in the medical unit.

Some of the young inmates ended up in solitary for months on end because they could not be housed with co-defendants.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch have said solitary used against juvenile offenders leads to post-traumatic stress and increased chance of suicide.

The sheriff has implemented a “segregated housing” policy that requires all juvenile inmates to have access to a regular school day outside of their cells. Mental health counselors are now available to prevent self-harm.

Neelakanta said that the jail for these offenders is “no sleep-away camp,” but the new system so far is very successful

“Kids are no longer kept in solitary confinement. They are being let out for the duration of the school,” he said. “They are allowed to take showers and have recreation time.”

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