Roy Miller, Founder, The Children’s Campaign
The death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL has millions across the country tweeting, signing petitions, and attending rallies in the pursuit of justice. Less than 90 miles west on the I-4 corridor and a bit south, in Bartow, another civil rights struggle is taking place.
On Wednesday, March 21, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit on behalf of children who have suffered alleged abuse while detained in the Polk County jail. Incidents profiled include being sprayed in the face repeatedly with harsh chemical agents even for minor infractions. Children are also subjected to verbal assaults. Girls report that guards refer to them as “little b*tches.”
It is further alleged that Polk County Sheriff employees force children placed on a suicide watch to strip naked in view of their peers and then wear a “suicide suit” – a short, sleeveless garment that leaves children’s bodies exposed. Children are then confined in a metal, kennel like structure – known as the “cage” – for up to 23 hours per day and that is empty except for a cold, hard bench.
All of this has come about because, in 2011, Floridalawmakers at the urging of Senator J.D. Alexander passed legislation which allows counties to place children in adult jails. Children have the minimal protection of sight and sound separation from adult detainees but the law reverses more than four decades of research based practices.
According to the SPLC, after passage of SB 2112, Polk is the only county that is housing juveniles under the Florida model jail standards written and adopted by the sheriffs themselves rather than abiding to more stringent rules imposed by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Florida office, said any money being saved by housing children in the adult jail has come at the expense of the children.
SPLC also raises serious questions about longer term impacts of subjecting children to adult correctional facilities. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention report that youth detained in adult facilities are 34% more likely to be re-arrested than youth held in juvenile settings.
In a hastily called news conference, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the charges are mostly erroneous and that he looked forward to putting SPLC “in their place”. He went on the say that his jail detains the “worst of the worst” juvenile offenders.
Statistics suggest otherwise. According to the DJJ, more than 3 of every 4 children arrested inPolkCountylast year involved misdemeanors or non-law probation violations. Hardly qualifying as serious public safety risks, too many have experienced unspeakable levels of prior neglect and abuse.
Regardless, should the past history of a child in any way justify harsh or inhumane treatment?
Documents show that SPLC lawyers and staff visited the facility more than 200 times and interviewed as many as 100 children. Families of some of the children mentioned in the lawsuit attended the press conference announcing the action.
What can grandparents do?
Write a letter to the Polk County Sheriff protesting the housing of children in his adult oriented jail:
Attn: Sheriff Judd
1891 Jim Keene Blvd.
Winter Haven, Fl. 338800