A federal district judge in Tampa, Fla., heard opening arguments today in a class action lawsuit alleging that juveniles detained at a county jail in central Florida were often mistreated and left in unsafe conditions.
The lawsuit was filed last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of several young people who were held at the Polk County jail, most of whom were being detained pre-trial. Central to the suit’s claim is a 2011 state law that allows sheriffs to house pre-adjudicated juveniles formerly held in Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) care.
The case, Hughes vs. Judd, focuses on allegations that young people held at the facility were pepper sprayed for disobedience, placed in “harsh isolation conditions” and confined in juvenile dorms without staff present. In addition, the suit claims that Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and privatized provider Corizon Health, Inc., failed to provide detained young people with adequate care or a safe environment.
“What we learned once we began meeting with children detained at the jail and meeting with their parents was exactly what we had feared would happen,” Tania Galloni, a SPLC managing attorney, said Friday during a conference call to update members of the press. “That the extent Sheriff Judd was saving money, it was by subjecting these children to harsh, punitive adult jail-like conditions, rather than operating a true juvenile detention center.”
Galloni said that children tried as juveniles were being mistreated. At least five juveniles were placed in isolation for a month in what she described as “incredibly harmful conditions for children to endure.”
The Polk County Sheriff’s department denies the suit’s allegations.
“Our general response is that we’ve been safely housing these juveniles, certainly the bound over ones, for years,” Scott Wilder, director of communications for the Polk County Sheriff’s office, told JJIE. “There is more supervision than they have at virtually any other detention facility, and certainly the Polk County detention facility.”
Wilder said he believes the lawsuit is an attempt by the SPLC to “demonize” the sheriff’s department.
“We’re doing an outstanding job, and we just have a different philosophy than the SPLC has,” Wilder said. “We totally reject the attorney’s viewpoint, we’re totally responsive to our community and we’re going to do a good job keeping these juvenile delinquents in our facility safe and secure, pending judicial outcomes.”