GALESBURG – Youth detained at the Mary Davis Detention Home (“MDH”) in Galesburg, Illinois continue to endure abusive, extended solitary confinement despite multiple failed audits and repeated warnings about the harm of this practice. The facility also fails to provide adequate mental health services to support the youth, many of whom have substantial mental health issues caused and compounded by their detention and isolation.  In addition to the excessive use of solitary confinement, MDH also subjects youth to invasive and humiliating facility-wide strip searches. MDH leadership also fails to provide adequate education to the school-aged children in its care.

These allegations are outlined in a lawsuit filed in U. S. District Court in the Central District of Illinois challenging the conditions and treatment of the young people housed at MDH.   

“Officials at Mary Davis Home have repeatedly been placed on notice about their troubling confinement practices and instructed to change them,” said Kevin Fee, Senior Special Litigation Counsel at the ACLU of Illinois, one of the lawyers representing the youth in the lawsuit. “They also know extended punitive confinement is now contrary to Illinois law.  But these officials have chosen to stubbornly stick with practices they know are harmful. We are asking a federal court to order the fixes this facility desperately needs.”

MDH is a juvenile detention center in Galesburg, Illinois. It has space for nearly forty detainees and reports a regular population of between 15 and 25 young people. The youth detained at MDH spend a majority of their time in solitary confinement. But the facility also imposes enhanced solitary confinement as a punishment, subjecting kids to practices like so-called “Special Group Status,” which is another term for 23-hour-a-day lockdown that often lasts weeks or months on end.

MDH officials confine young people in tiny concrete cells with fluorescent lights that remain lit at all times.  They force youth on confinement status to eat alone, just a few steps away from the toilet they regularly use, and deprive them of meaningful human interaction. Attempts to communicate with other youth in the facility, even talking to a youth in the neighboring cell, are met with threats of further punishment and confinement. The practice of extended solitary confinement is well-known to cause lasting harm, especially to children who are still developing mentally and physically.

“There is an overwhelming consensus that extended solitary confinement is irreparably harmful to kids, and it’s made worse through combination with the other abuses kids have to endure at MDH” Fee added.

Compounding the harm caused by solitary confinement, youth at MDH do not have access to adequate mental health care.  The facility does not employ a full-time mental health professional.  The brief visits these youth receive from an outside counselor are actually cut back for the young people in solitary who need them most:  they only get a few minutes to talk to the counselor each week, through their cell door and within earshot of other youth.  Even kids in acute mental health crisis or on “suicide watch” are denied meaningful mental health services.  Incredibly, they often get more solitary confinement and fewer services than other youth.

MDH staff also conduct invasive, facility-wide strip searches of youth in degrading and humiliating ways. These searches force youth to strip completely naked in front of multiple staff, bend over, and perform jumping jacks.  In one reported instance, a youth was held down while staff forcibly cut his clothes off with a knife. The traumatic experience of a childhood strip search can cause emotional consequences that endure long after the search is done.

“It’s clear MDH leadership will not change their practices, or address the harm they are causing young people, without intervention from a federal court,” added Fee. “This situation must be rectified now, so that kids at MDH are no longer forced to waste months of their childhood pacing back and forth in a concrete box, and enduring the profound damage caused by solitary confinement.”

The class action lawsuit was filed in federal court in the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois on behalf of J.B.H., A.M., and all youth who are currently, or in the future will be, detained at MDH.   The Defendants include Knox County, Chief Judge Raymond Cavanaugh, Director of Court Services Bridget E. Pletz, and Superintendent Wendi Steck, all sued in their official capacities.

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A copy of the complaint can be found here