Two weeks after a group of teenagers placed in solitary confinement while awaiting trial sued the county, King County legislators have introduced a piece of legislation that would ban solitary confinement for teens outright.
Rod Dembowski, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said he had been under the impression teens charged as adults—cases known as "auto-declines"—weren't placed in solitary confinement in King County's adult jails. Or he was under that impression until he read the details of the lawsuit. The proposed ordinance that bans the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, Dembowski told The Stranger, has "100 percent" to do with the allegations in the teens ' and their families' complaint.
Dembowski said that last year, after having read reports from the Obama-era Department of Justice and Annie E. Casey Foundation on the mistreatment of youths in solitary confinement, he asked the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) if King County placed juveniles in solitary. He came away with the impression that they do not.
When Dembowski called up the DAJD last Monday and asked the department's director, William Hayes, if solitary confinement existed, he said he received a more straight-forward response. "He confirmed that we do have youth in solitary confinement," Dembowski said. "They use it as a disciplinary technique."
"The lawsuit brought my attention back to an issue that I thought was not an issue," Dembowski said.
The legislation backed by Dembowski, as well as King County Council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Larry Gossett, would effectively end the use of solitary confinement on juveniles. The legislation defines solitary as the "placement of an incarcerated person in a locked room or cell alone with minimal or no contact with persons other than guards, correctional facility staff, and attorneys."
The proposed legislation maintains a carveout for use of solitary "as necessary for safety, security, or other reasons that would preclude the use of a less restrictive option." It also asks King County Executive Dow Constantine to appoint a third party to monitor progress on the banning of solitary confinement for juveniles—and, if the legislation requires negotiations with the corrections officers' union, to do so.
In 2016, former President Obama banned federal prisons from placing youths in solitary. Two years prior, New York City ended the practice in its own jails, too. The science behind the decision points to evidence that that solitary can have devastating effects on teenagers' still-developing brains.
The King County teens' complaint paints a disturbing picture of conditions some youths face while waiting for trial. "These children, many of whom already have mental illnesses, have little to nothing to do in their isolation cells: no meaningful human interaction, little to no education or programming, no music or television, and very few reading materials," the complaint reads. "Even when allowed out of their cells, children in isolation are alone in the day room. Any 'recreation' the children in isolation receive takes place alone in an empty, concrete pen."
Last week, King County executive Dow Constantine signed an order to end the practice of putting detained teens in adult jail. Some teens have been moved to a youth facility, but 15 remain detained in the county's adult jail in Kent.