In north Idaho, a 15-year-old boy sits in an isolated jail cell awaiting trial for murder. Eldon Samuel III is accused of shooting to death his father and younger brother in March.
Juveniles accused of crimes like this are automatically charged as adults in Idaho. But now, Samuel’s lawyer and the ACLU are trying to get him moved out of solitary confinement at the adult county jail. They say his isolation amounts to “cruel and unusual” punishment.
Eldon Samuel has been locked up since the evening of March 24.That’s when he allegedly used a handgun, a shotgun and a machete to murder his father and 13-year old brother. He then called police.
Samuel was quickly arrested. His lawyer said the spasm of violence followed a troubled childhood.
Three Months In Isolation
Today, Samuel is locked up in a small holding cell in the Kootenai County Jail. The cell is roughly 9-by-12 or about the size of a standard area rug. Samuel is there 24 hours a day except to shower, meet with his lawyer or to use a concrete recreation area.
According to court filings, the teenager has already spent close to three months in this isolated cell.
“It may be that he’s alleged to have committed some pretty terrible things here, but that doesn’t mean that we torture our children," his public defender John Adams said. "That doesn’t mean we isolate them from the world and put them in a little square cement box.”
The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office runs the jail. It’s keeping Samuel in the isolated cell with the window covered to comply with something called the “sight and sound separation” rule, a state and federal requirement that juveniles held in adult lock-ups be kept separate.
The cell may be separate, but his lawyer said it’s not quiet. It’s right next to the jail booking area which can hum with activity and chatter night and day.
Even the sheriff’s office doesn’t think Samuel belongs in its jail. At a recent court hearing, Sgt. Thomas Stangeland testified that Samuel would be better off at the county’s juvenile detention facility.
“They’re professionals in what they do," Stangeland said. "I just think that they can keep him housed by himself there so that he would be safe.”
Asked if he thinks his jail’s conditions are fair to a teenage boy, Sgt. Stangeland replied, “I do not, sir.”
Samuel did spend several weeks in juvenile detention. He mingled there with other kids and got to attend school. Officials told the court he did well. In fact, almost everyone involved in this case seems to agree that Samuel belongs in the juvenile facility.
'A Very Small Risk, But A Very Grave Danger'
At the recent court hearing, even the judge acknowledged the isolation cell is far from ideal.
“It’s unfortunate to hold anybody in lockdown 23-hours a day, 24-hours a day,” Judge Benjamin Simpson said.
But he added that he wasn’t willing to take the risk that a murder defendant like Samuel could hurt another juvenile.
“I think there’s a very small risk, but a very grave danger of some sort of a problem with other juveniles or with Mr. Samuel in the juvenile detention center,” Simpson said.
For that reason, in early July Judge Simpson ordered Eldon Samuel back to the Kootenai County Jail and his isolation cell. Now, Samuel’s lawyer and the ACLU are asking the courts to reverse that decision.
'His Mental State Is Deteriorating'
“We should not be holding children in solitary confinement,” ACLU of Idaho Legal Director Richard Eppink said.
He argued Eldon Samuel is being treated more harshly than some adult enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay. U.S. policy states that detainees there are only placed in solitary if they’re “non-compliant.” Eppink notes that by all accounts Samuel has been cooperative.
“This is not the kind of thing that we expect in the United States, not the kind of thing we expect in Idaho and here it is happening in northern Idaho as we speak," Eppink said. "That’s outrageous.”
In fact, a 2012 study by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch concluded that solitary confinement of juveniles is a “serious and widespread problem in the United States.” That same year, a U.S. Attorney General Task Force report determined that isolating youth in jails can have “devastating effects.”
Adams said the isolation is already taking a toll on his client.
“His body is not responding well to being kept in this solitary isolation cell, his emotional state is deteriorating, and his mental state is deteriorating,” he said.
Adams plans to be back in court next week to ask another judge to free Samuel from isolation and send the accused teenage killer back to juvenile detention.
Samuel’s trial date has not yet been scheduled. If he’s convicted, he could be sentenced to juvenile corrections or an adult prison in Idaho.