Children as young as 11 are being confined to cells the size of parking spaces for up to 23 hours a day at a juvenile detention center in Southern Illinois, charged a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Young people at the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center in Benton must ask staff permission to flush the toilet, and they can go days or weeks without access to schoolwork, the Associated Press reports. According to the lawsuit, black mold grows on the walls, and there are no mental health professionals at the facility. The lawsuit seeks a court order compelling the facility to improve conditions immediately, saying youths are being deprived of their rights under the 14th Amendment. “These are not conditions that anybody, let alone any child, should be subjected to,” said ACLU lawyer Kevin Fee, describing the situation as “inhumane to the level of being unspeakable.” In general, the conditions of juvenile detention centers in the U.S. have been slowly improving in the last few decades thanks to research on the harms of solitary confinement. This case is “especially frightening,” said clinical and forensic psychologist Apryl Alexander, who works with detained youth. “We’re supposed to be using the juvenile legal system for rehabilitation and not punishment. These are youth who are capable of change — we recognize that developmentally and personally. And so we should be treating them as such.”
Fee added that the Franklin detention center is used to hold kids before they have been sentenced or found guilty by a court. The ACLU spoke with more than a dozen youngsters who are either detained currently or have been detained at the facility within the past few weeks, Fee said. “The idea that children would spend any portion of their childhood locked in solitary confinement is an egregious abuse,” he said. Solitary confinement is “extremely harmful for everybody who is locked up, but particularly for children spending that much time in a brightly lit room, unable to really sleep properly,” Fee said. The practice has been banned for youth held by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice since 2015/ Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation making it illegal to use on “young detainees in detention centers for any purpose other than preventing immediate physical harm.” The law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024. Alexander added that the majority of suicides that happen in detention occur when a person is in solitary confinement. It is also important to consider that many youth in the juvenile legal system experienced trauma before they were detained, “so putting them in solitary confinement can also be retraumatizing,” Alexander said.