Four imprisoned teens win cash settlement from King County in ban on youth solitary confinement

SEATTLE -- Kids locked up on criminal charges – even very serious ones – may no longer be held in long-term isolation in King County.

That ban on solitary confinement for youths strengthens an Executive Order signed by King County Executive Dow Constantine last year, both of which are responses to a lawsuit filed by Columbia Legal Services on behalf of four teens who were isolated, sometimes for months, in Kent’s Regional Justice Center. The teens – all under 18 but charged as adults – had been locked in solitary confinement as punishment for defying officers.

Typically, they spent at least 23 hours a day locked in cells without windows and were allowed out no more than 15 minutes every three days. In some cases, they did not even know why they had been put into isolation, said Nick Staley, an attorney with Columbia Legal.

The practice of solitary confinement for adult inmates has attracted increasingly critical attention for the damage it can do to prisoners’ mental health. It is viewed as especially harmful to children who are still developing physically, psychologically and socially, the lawsuit notes.

“Isolating children…causes trauma, depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and increases the risk of suicide and self-harm,” said Travis Andrews, juvenile justice policy analyst with Columbia Legal Services, pointing out that two teens in isolation cells displayed serious depression and suicidal tendencies after being held in solitary confinement at the Kent jail.

"Isolating children can bring on anger and mistrust of adults or authority figures, further complicating efforts to rehabilitate young people and exacerbating the agitation and behavior that led to discipline in the first place," Andrews added.

Using isolation as punishment is now banned under terms of the settlement signed Monday by Judge John C. Coughenour of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

County Executive Constantine has spoken frequently about his goal of “zero detention” – even for youths charged with crimes. Part of this is driven by concerns about equity. A report recently released by the King County Prosecutor's Office shows that, overwhelmingly, kids charged as adults in King County are children of color:  86 percent in 2016 and 83 percent in 2017.

The lawsuit brought by Columbia Legal Services also targeted inadequate schooling – a legally mandated service – for all kids who were incarcerated at Kent’s Regional Justice Center.

King County has agreed to pay each of the four teens at the heart of the complaint a settlement of at least $53,750. The county also has agreed that if a youth is isolated to protect themselves, other inmates or jail staff, parents and mental health professional will be notified within eight hours.