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Solitary Confinement For Juveniles Continues at Onondaga County Justice Ctr. Despite Lawsuit

Scott Willis

An attorney with Legal Services of Central New York says the Onondaga County Justice Center continues to place 16 and 17-year olds in solitary confinement three months after they filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the practice.  So, legal services staff attorney and case co-lead counsel Josh Cotter says they’ve requested an expedited order in district court to stop the justice center from isolating teens. 

“There's really a consensus throughout the country that putting anyone, let alone a 16 or 17-year-old kid, in solitary confinement is wrong," Cotter said.  "I hoped that our community would recognize that and want to change.  It's been very disappointing that at this point, they really haven’t.”                                               

Between September 21st when the lawsuit was filed, and December first, Cotter says about two dozen juveniles have been placed in solitary confinement, most for minor offenses.

One, for not walking back to his cell fast enough.  He was sent to the segregated housing unit, where he's housed there with adults, and he's a 16-year-old kid," Cotter said.  "The adults would sexually harass him, saying they were going to do stuff to him, that they were going to throw feces on him, throw urine on him.  It's not just threats; that's actually happened to kids since we filed the lawsuit.”      

Credit Scott Willis / WAER News
Randy Pope shares his experience in solitary confinement at a news conference in September as LSCNY Director of Advocacy Sam Young listens.


Cotter says Onondaga County is one of the only communities in the nation to continue “torturing” teens in this manner.

Each and every day these kids are put in solitary confinement is another day they're being harmed," Cotter said.  "A lot of these kids have mental health issues, and putting them in a small cell for 23 hours a day is only making it worse.  Most, if not all of these kids, are going to be back in our community.  We need to make sure they're coming back  better, not worse than when they first came in.”                                                        

Cotter says the teens don’t receive any meaningful mental health counseling, and are deprived of education in solitary confinement.  

Of the 131 juveniles admitted to the jail between October 2015 and October 2016, 60 percent spent time in isolation.  The average stay was 26 days.  One teen served more than 150 days, and another was sentenced to 400 consecutive days in solitary confinement.  

The Onondaga County Sheriff’s office, which runs the justice center, did not respond to our request for comment.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at