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Teens placed in solitary confinement settle with King County

Four teenagers formerly jailed in a King County solitary confinement unit at an adult jail have settled a federal lawsuit against the county.

KUOW's Sydney Brownstone talks about how the teens' lawsuit changed solitary confinement in King County.

King County will now pay $240,000 to the teens and their families, including legal costs. The Kent School District will pay the teens and additional $25,000 to make up for the educational hours the teens were denied while in isolation. The settlement, which doesn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing on the county’s part, also puts in place protocols to stop youths from being held in solitary confinement in the future.

Maria, one of the mothers of the teens held in solitary who did not want to use her last name to protect the identify of her child, said she saw her son change while he was held in the Regional Justice Center, an adult facility in Kent.

K.C., as her son is known in the lawsuit, was moved to solitary shortly after he arrived in August. According to the lawsuit, K.C., 16 years old at the time, remained in isolation two months later.

K.C. qualified for an individual educational plan, or IEP, to continue his schoolwork, but lost those educational services once he was moved to isolation, according to the lawsuit. Maria said that instead, K.C. was given schoolwork packets that were slid under the door.

K.C.’s mother also said that when she spoke to her son on the phone — which had to be paid for by the family, like the rest of the inmates — he seemed withdrawn and didn’t tell her much of what was going on. Later, she said she found out he had been punching the walls and had to go to the hospital because of a hand injury. She also said that he told her he had trouble sleeping because he started hearing voices.

But K.C. was only one of the teens interviewed by Columbia Legal Services, the firm that brought the class action suit. Travis Andrews, juvenile justice policy analyst at the firm, said he and his colleagues launched an investigation of teens’ treatment at the jail after hearing from inmates and attorneys alike.

That investigation took a year, during which Andrews and others interviewed 30 kids at the adult jail. Andrews said the investigation revealed that kids who were charged as adults for felonies under the state’s “auto-decline” statute were often placed in isolation for 23 or 24 hours a day. One teen Andrews interviewed was kept in isolation for eight months after being targeted by other inmates, Andrews said.

“I spoke to most of the kids on a weekly basis and I could physically see the difference in him throughout that period of time,” Andrews said. “That was something that was very difficult to watch him kind of deteriorate over that time period.”

When the teens and their families filed the lawsuit last October, King County Council members quickly passed a piece of legislation banning solitary confinement for teens held in adult jails, outside of extreme cases. Solitary confinement in juvenile facilities has been banned since the 1990s, but adult facilities trying to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) often ended up placing auto-declined juveniles in isolated units.

The number of teens referred to the prosecutor’s office to be charged as adults has been steadily increasing over the last four years. Last year, 82 teens were charged as adults in King County. Forty-four percent of those teens were African-American, and the most common charge was robbery.

The teens’ settlement with the county also holds county officials to new standards. The agreement requires the county to audit teens transferred to adult jails; if teens are placed into solitary, the agreement requires a mental health professional to assess that teen within eight hours and also notify a parent. If teens are transferred to the hospital from solitary, the agreement requires parental notification, too.

The teens from the original lawsuit have since been transferred to juvenile facilities. Maria told KUOW since then, K.C. has been doing much better. He’s getting more educational support now and wants to go to school to be a barber, she said.

“He’s still being a kid,” Maria said. “And that's most important — that’s priceless for me. Because he's still there."

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