Unnecessary solitary confinement of adolescent amounts to punishment before conviction, ACLU brief contends

Boise, Idaho—On Friday, July 21, 2014 the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho Foundation (ACLU) filed documents in District Court in Kootenai County in support of a petition by the County Public Defender’s office to end the solitary confinement of fifteen-year old Eldon Samuel III, who has been held in isolation in an adult jail while awaiting trial. Eldon, who recently turned fifteen, has been in isolation for more than 70 days in a makeshift child isolation cell near the Kootenai County adult jail’s booking area. The cell’s windows are covered with dark blinds, limiting his access to any natural light or viewing outside his cinderblock cell. He is allowed out only for showers, exercise on a cement slab, and religious and attorney visits.

“The fact that Eldon’s own guardian told the court the this child is being held in conditions worse than the Guantanamo Bay detention camp is very telling,” said Richard Eppink, ACLU of Idaho’s legal director. “Adult prisoners face tremendous psychological problems when placed in isolation, and research suggests that it is even worse for adolescents like Eldon. Many courts have said that such treatment is in violation of Constitutional standards.”

Eldon’s current solitary confinement continued after a state court ordered him removed from the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) where he was being held and successfully integrated with the other youth. While at JDC, he took part in regular recreational activities and attended school year ‘round alongside his peers. JDC staff told the court that they were keeping Eldon safe, along with JDC staff and the other children being held there. The Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections also recommended that Eldon be held at the JDC, after observing Eldon’s solitary confinement at Kootenai County’s adult jail. In testimony and statements to the court, the operations manager of the JDC, a Commander at the adult jail, Eldon’s attorneys and his guardian ad litem, the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections, and the county’s prosecuting attorney’s office all agreed that the JDC was the proper place for Eldon.

The ACLU’s court documents filed on Friday contend the Eldon’s condition of confinement is unconstitutional. “Because Eldon has not been convicted of any crime, and is instead only a pretrial detainee…[his] solitary confinement clearly amounts to punishment,” the ACLU’s brief argues. Citing precedent long established by courts from across the country, the brief notes that “the excruciating psychological torment of social isolation and solitary confinement is ‘inherently punitive.’”

“Solitary confinement is well known to cause grave psychological harm to adults and youth are even more vulnerable to prolonged isolation,” said Leo Morales, Interim Executive Director of the ACLU of Idaho. “In the context of Eldon’s case, the psychological trauma caused by solitary confinement amounts to undeserved punishment before trial, resulting in violation of his constitutional rights to Due Process.”

The friend of the court document filed by the ACLU of Idaho is in support of a petition for writ of habeas corpus filed on July 11, 2014 by the Kootenai County Public Defender’s office representing Eldon in the case.