The New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed a class-action lawsuit in district court last month against the Onondaga County Sheriff's Office for its alleged use of solitary confinement for 16 and 17 year olds.
The NYCLU says that the young people, many of whom are mentally ill, are held in solitary sometimes for months. The practice should stop because it is causing permanent psychological harm, the NYCLU says.
"The children are sexually harassed by adults, housed in disgusting conditions, denied education, and in some cases, pushed to contemplating suicide," according to an NYCLU statement.
Some young people in the Onondaga County's Justice Center have not been convicted of a crime, but are held sometimes for weeks because they can't afford bail, the NYCLU says.
Calls to the Onondaga County Sheriff's Office were not returned.
Solitary confinement or "the box" is used as punishment for minor offenses such as talking loudly, says Josh Cotter, one of the attorneys representing the NYCLU.
Inmates are often housed alone in small cells with barely enough room to move around and no stimuli for roughly 23 hours a day; an hour outside the cell is permitted for exercise and showering, he says.
Though the suit is directed at the Syracuse jail, its outcome could have a profound statewide impact on how young people are treated by the justice system, Cotter says. New York is one of two states that treat 16 and 17 year olds as adults.
In Monroe County, 16 and 17 year olds are sent to solitary confinement in the county jail as a form of punishment for offenses such as fighting, says John Helfer, public information officer for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. But there have been no complaints from parents or guardians about abuse, he says.