AUSTIN (CN) – The Texas Youth Commission punishes traumatized, mentally ill girls at the Brownwood State School with months of solitary confinement in oppressively cold cells with metal slabs for beds, repeatedly strip searches them without cause, pepper sprays them in the face, and otherwise abuses them, a class action claims in Federal Court.
Most of the girls in Brownwood suffered “often severe and persistent physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse resulting in trauma” before they were imprisoned, the complaint states. “Almost all of the girls have been diagnosed with mental illness.”
Plaintiffs say that girls put into solitary confinement, where lights remain on 24 hours a day. They are denied any and all possessions and often “lie curled in the fetal position on the floor or the metal slab. At other times, they beat their heads, hands, or feet against the cell walls. In response to such harm, TYC guards rush into the cells, often in full riot gear and wielding shields, and subject girls to extreme force such as pepper spraying their faces. Solitary confinement is imposed for minor misbehavior, for self-harm, and for expressing a desire to commit self-harm. The duration of solitary confinement imposed on girls varies between very brief terms and terms of months.”
The complaint continues: “Girls in Brownwood are frequently subjected to invasive strip searches conducted by guards. Guards strip search girls when girls are taken into and out of solitary confinement, and at other times when there is no individualized justification for a search. Girls often resist such sexual exposure, and in response, guards subject them to physical force, often binding the girls in leather straps and leaving them on the cold, dirty concrete floor of an isolation cell until they surrender to being strip searched.
“Punitive solitary confinement and routine strip searches inflict severe psychological damage and concomitant physical injury on incarcerated girls, especially in light of the girls’ youth, their histories of abuse, and their mental health diagnoses. Such treatment is degrading and humiliating and as a consequence girls leave TYC custody more physically and emotionally damaged than when they entered.”
The class action challenges as unconstitutional the punitive imposition of solitary confinement and “the routine and unwarranted strip searching”.
The complaint also states:
One named plaintiff was admitted when she was 14, more than three years ago, and is still imprisoned in Brownwood. She was sexually assaulted throughout her childhood and suffers from bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. She has been punished with solitary confinement “over one hundred times for periods of up the three months,” subjected to “unwarranted and degrading strip searches,” and pepper sprayed in the eyes.
One plaintiff was sexually assaulted by her father.
One plaintiff was committed to TYC in 2007, when she was 14. She had been sexually assaulted repeatedly. This girl was put into solitary confinement for offenses that included “covering her face with her blanket while asleep in bed,” “turning around while standing in line,” and “standing too far from other girls while standing in line”.
One plaintiff, 15, was abused by her father and stepfather and has multiple mental disorders, including bipolar disorder, and repetitively pulls out her hair. She has been “subjected to dozens of instances of punitive solitary confinement for periods of up to three months, and unwarranted and degrading strip searches.”
Defendants include Texas Youth Commission Conservator Richard Nedelkoff, TYC Deputy Commissioner James Smith, and Brownwood State School Superintendent Teresa Stroud.
Plaintiffs’ lead counsel is Lisa Graybill with the ACLU’s Austin office.