(CN) — Dedicating one of its final acts to teenagers at a Syracuse, N.Y., juvenile detention center, the ambitious civil-rights division of President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice intervened Tuesday in their challenge against isolation and sexual harassment.
The maneuver comes just over three months after the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class action in Albany on behalf of teens locked up at the Onondaga County Justice Center.
In the 11 months prior to its lawsuit, the NYCLU estimated that the center saw 86 children in solitary confinement more than 250 times — often within cramped cells that have urine-soaked and feces-strewn floors.
Children have reported 23-hour stretches of near-complete isolation for months at a time, a form of deprivation that psychiatrists increasingly describe as torture.
The children have also faced sexual harassment, according to the complaint, because New York law allows 16-year-olds to share a cell with adults.
“One child described an adult threatening to force him to perform fellatio on him and masturbating while watching the child walk to the shower,” the NYCLU said.
One former juvenile offender named Charnasha gave the group a statement about her time in detention at age 16 – saying she had to shower in front of ogling guards without any curtain.
One guard allegedly looked at the girl, then said to Charnasha’s friend: “She looks better in the shower than you do.”
Court records redact the full names of the plaintiffs to protect the minors.
When announcing the lawsuit, NYCLU director Donna Lieberman emphasized the psychic toll of isolating teenagers.
“Any time you send a child to solitary confinement, you risk damaging them permanently,” Lieberman said in September. “Punishing children with solitary doesn’t improve public safety nor serve any disciplinary value — it is simply torture and has to stop.”
The NYCLU has since lobbied for a permanent federal injunction and court-appointed monitor to overhaul the jail’s policies.
The Department of Justice aided that effort Tuesday, filing a statement of interest with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.
“Juveniles are psychologically more vulnerable than adults,” Deputy Attorney General Vanita Gupta wrote in a 9-page brief. “Their brains are still developing, ‘making their time spent in solitary confinement even more difficult and the developmental, psychological, and physical damage more comprehensive and lasting.’”
Reforming long-term solitary confinement has been a focus toward the end of Obama’s second term. In a July 14, 2015, speech at the NAACP National Convention, the president requested that Attorney General Loretta Lynch address the “overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons.”
Releasing the results of that investigation in January 2016, the Justice Department instructed that solitary confinement should be “used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints.”
That 128-page report notes several times in which the Obama administration has fought to remove teenagers from solitary confinement in state prisons, including in Lefore County, Miss.; Contra Costa County, Calif.; Terrebonne Parish, La.; Los Angeles County, Calif.; and at New York City’s Rikers Island prison.
In supporting the Syracuse teens, the government urged the judge to consider “the growing body of scientific research and relevant Supreme Court case law, in assessing the harm caused to juveniles by the alleged solitary confinement practices at the Justice Center.”
The Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office has not returned a telephone request for comment.
The parties will meet for oral arguments before U.S. District Judge David Hurd on Jan. 27, a week after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.
Officials working in the Justice Department’s civil-rights division told the Huffington Post that they are worried that Trump’s tenure presents the “terrifying” threat of dismantling all they have accomplished.
“People recognize that the resources aren’t going to be there and that the support isn’t going to be there,” one anonymous official told the Huffington Post. “But people really recognize that the importance of career line attorney in the Civil Rights Division has never been greater.”