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Ropes & Gray Prevails in Civil Rights Trial on Behalf of Juveniles Subjected to Unconstitutional Solitary Confinement and Mechanical Restraints

Tags: Pro Bono

On March 30, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a forceful decision vindicating the civil rights of a plaintiff class, represented by Ropes & Gray, comprised of juveniles incarcerated at the Boys State Training School in Eldora, Iowa (the “School”). The decision came after Ropes & Gray, in partnership with Children’s Rights and Disability Rights Iowa, conducted a two-week bench trial in June 2019.

Originally filed in 2017, the lawsuit brought Fourteenth Amendment and other claims on behalf of a class of juveniles incarcerated at the School who suffer from serious mental illness, but who have been denied any meaningful mental health treatment.  Instead, the School has subjected these juveniles to excessive and punitive solitary confinement for minor infractions that are symptomatic of their underlying mental health issues. The School also routinely placed these boys in a fixed mechanical restraint bed known as the “wrap,” which is used almost nowhere else in the country.  In short, rather than providing these juveniles with the mental health care they acutely need—often as a result of past trauma—the School instead has further traumatized these youth by placing them in harsh isolation conditions and by subjecting them to what plaintiffs’ experts described as a “torture device.”  

In a 116-page decision, U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie M. Rose broadly adopted the evidence presented by Ropes & Gray and the plaintiffs’ team at trial, and the arguments in their post-trial briefing. 

The Court concluded that the School and the responsible state officials violated the U.S. Constitution with respect to each primary issue raised by the plaintiff class.  Specifically, the School consciously disregarded the obvious harms posed by its “grossly inadequate” provision of mental health services, particularly for this student population with severe trauma histories and significant mental health care needs.  The Court also agreed with the plaintiff class that the School unconstitutionally “employs solitary confinement excessively and as a means of punishment.”  Finally, in a particularly powerful discussion, the Court found that “the School tortures its students” by its use of the “wrap.”  In so holding the Court went on:

The students at the School are almost entirely children. Some of these children are dangerous; some of them are not. But all deserve our protection. These children’s care was entrusted to the School by well-meaning judges across the State of Iowa. To learn that the School used the wrap to revictimize already vulnerable, typically mentally ill, children entrusted to their care is disturbing to the Court at a level that is nearly indescribable.

In turn, the Court issued sweeping injunctive relief, requiring the School promptly to provide adequate mental health care services for the juveniles in its care, including robust mental health care planning and the provision of psychotherapy for juveniles who need it.  The Court also ordered significant limits on the School’s use of isolation measures, in keeping with national standards.  Finally, the Court permanently enjoined the School from using the “wrap,” and required the School to certify the “wrap’s” removal within 10 days.  The Court also ordered the appointment of a monitor to ensure the School’s compliance with the Court’s order for at least two years, and longer for good cause shown.        

The Ropes & Gray team was led by litigation & enforcement partners Nicholas Berg and Timothy Farrell (both of Chicago), and included litigation & enforcement associates Charlie ZagnoliElizabeth Noonan-PomadaAmanda Seitz, and Rebekah Newman (all of Chicago), Patrick Doherty (New York), and Munachimso Okoji (DC). 

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