- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio will reduce the seclusion of boys with mental health issues in its youth prisons and work to improve services for those teens, under a settlement reached with the federal government.

The Justice Department had called the use of solitary confinement to discipline boys with mental health disorders rampant in the state’s juvenile justice system and sought an order to limit seclusion at its facilities. That request was added to a 2008 lawsuit raising concerns about seclusion and inadequate mental health services.

Youth Services has said it secludes juveniles as a last resort and still offers treatment and programming in those cases. As part of the agreement filed in federal court Tuesday, the agency said it is committed to eliminating solitary confinement as a discipline tool.

The agreement and accompanying plan “focuses on reducing violence, improving culture, and moving away from using seclusion as a disciplinary tool,” Youth Services spokeswoman Kim Jump said in a statement Wednesday.

The settlement resolves allegations that the Ohio withholds treatment and programs from youth with mental health needs being held in seclusion, the Justice Department said.

“Overreliance on solitary confinement for young people, particularly those with disabilities, is unsafe and counterproductive,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement Wednesday.

Federal judge Algenon Marbley approved the deal late Wednesday.

As of Wednesday the state housed 515 youths in three juvenile prisons, along with four alternative facilities that include secure housing for girls. A fourth facility has been closed since the Justice Department’s complaint was filed.

By Sept. 1, Youth Services will limit its use of seclusion as discipline to four-hour increments to be served on weekends to prevent disruptions in a youth’s schooling and participation in programming, under the plan. In the past, a youth could be put in seclusion for up to five days as a disciplinary tool.

Exceptions would include a youth involved in a fight where a victim’s injuries were severe enough he had to be taken to a hospital for treatment. In such cases, a youth could be put in seclusion for up to 24 hours.

The Justice Department alleged in March that Ohio violated boys’ due process rights by depriving them of education, exercise and mental health care. When they return to the general population, the agency then doesn’t change their treatment to address the effects of solitary confinement or the problems that led to seclusion, the government said.

The filing charged that seclusion had become the system’s typical method of dealing with mentally ill boys. It said at least 10 boys at the now-closed Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility in central Ohio spent at least one-tenth of their time in seclusion between April and September of last year.