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Activists continue pushing to end solitary confinement for teens

Ellen Abbott
WRVO News File Photo

The fight to end the practice of putting teens in solitary confinement at the Onondaga County Justice Center continues, and it’s taking place on two fronts.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a class-action lawsuit claiming the policy violates the Constitution, and harms young people. And groups like the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse, or ACTS for short, is trying to raise awareness about the practice, with protests and discussions with county officials.

In the past year, more than 80 16- and 17-year-olds have spent time in solitary confinement. ACTS committee member Barry Lentz doesn’t want to have to wait until the lawsuit is settled before action is taken.

"We’re doing everything we can to move the discussion of how to address the situation forward. So we’re certainly hopeful there can be a successful resolution to this long before the lawsuit goes to court," said Lentz.

Lentz says the difficulty is that it’s a systems issue, which requires corrections officials to change what’s been a longstanding practice. Advocates for the teens say they are often put into solitaryconfinement for minor infractions -- like speaking too loudly, or sometimes for safety considerations.

The county banned the practice at the Jamesville Correctional Facility, but it still takes place at the Justice Center in downtown Syracuse, where youth are often held waiting trial because they can’t make bail.

At the heart of this issue is the fact that New York state treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, one of only two states nationwide to do so.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.