In a move characterized by a disability rights advocate as extremely rare, attorneys for the federal Department of Justice and Department of Education ripped Contra Costa County officials in charge of juvenile hall for locking up youths in solitary confinement and refusing to school them during their punishment, saying they are violating the teens' rights.

The attorneys also told Contra Costa officials to stop pointing fingers at each other and find a way to educate those young people at the facility who are in solitary.

The federal agencies' lawyers last week weighed in on an ongoing federal lawsuit challenging Contra Costa's policy of locking up youths with disabilities in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day -- in some cases for months in a 12-by-12-foot cell -- and denying them an education during such discipline.

A 2005 file photo os Contra Costa County’s  Juvenile Hall in Martinez. (Jim Stevens/Staff)
A 2005 file photo os Contra Costa County's Juvenile Hall in Martinez. (Jim Stevens/Staff)

The Justice Department's filing quoted findings from a departmental task force that concluded:

"Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement." It said such confinement could lead to "paranoia, anxiety and depression" and creates a risk of suicide.

The lawsuit was filed last August by Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates, along with a pro bono law firm and a private firm, on behalf of a teenage girl and two boys, all of whom were or are still detained at the maximum-security, 290-bed Martinez facility.

In March, a San Francisco federal judge will rule whether to grant class-action status to the suit, allowing other disabled youths to sue the county Probation Department, which runs juvenile hall, and the Contra Costa Office of Education, which runs the Mt. McKinley School inside the facility.

An attorney representing the teens said the solitary confinement policy is from the "Dark Ages."

"We do know that Contra Costa is probably one of the worst," said Marie-Lee Smith, Disability Rights Advocates' managing attorney. "There are many counties that do not use solitary confinement. It's very troubling and very disturbing to see a county continue to use this form of discipline."

Smith said it was extremely rare for the Justice Department to weigh in on a lawsuit, and even more unusual for federal education officials to join. In a Feb. 13 filing, the feds voiced concerns over using solitary confinement to punish detained youths, citing a 2002 Department of Justice study finding such treatment led to mental problems and even additional suicide attempts.

Unlike jails for adults, under state law juvenile halls are required to provide a "supportive homelike environment" and focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. Punishments based on a youth's disability must be treated differently from other discipline, and facilities must provide schooling, including special education, even if youths are being disciplined, according to state law.

The suit also alleges the county fails to provide adequate special education opportunities for all disabled youths.

In motions to dismiss, the county agencies said the discipline is needed to preserve a safe environment. The Office of Education argued it has no control over the Probation Department's discipline, while probation argued it has no control over the school.

Probation Officer Philip Kader said he could not comment on pending litigation.

An Office of Education spokeswoman said all sides agree the right to public education is of "high importance."

"This simple and concrete point does not dispute the fact that the lead agency responsible for the safety and security of the students in juvenile hall is the Department of Probation," said Office of Education spokeswoman Peggy Marshburn. "To label this position as finger pointing serves only to distract us from the important discussions around strengthening our partnership, so that the County Office of Education can successfully meet the educational needs of all youth in Juvenile Hall."

One 18-year-old plaintiff, identified as W.B., was sent to the Martinez facility in May 2012 after being found incompetent to stand trial because of his diagnosis of psychosis and schizophrenia. During his yearlong stay, he spent about 90 days in solitary, according to the lawsuit, and suffered from hearing voices, hallucinations and facial twitching until he deteriorated into smearing feces throughout his cell. He was involuntarily committed to an inpatient psychiatric hospital for three weeks.

The other two plaintiffs spent more than 100 and 200 days in solitary, respectively, during their stays, according to the lawsuit. Neither received schooling during those punishments.

Roughly a third of Contra Costa juvenile hall's youths have special education needs, according to the lawsuit.

Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.