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Courts / Law

Trial Under way Over Polk County Juvenile Detainees

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A class action lawsuit against the Polk County Sheriff and the agency's treatment of juvenile detainees is underway in federal court in Tampa.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit against Polk Sheriff Grady Judd and Corizon, a company the sheriff contracts with to provide inmates with medical care.

The suit was filed in 2012 on behalf of seven juveniles. They allege overly harsh conditions at the jail caused by poor supervision, inadequate rehabilitative programs and an overuse of pepper spray. The jail typically houses 60 to 70 juveniles.

Sheriff Grady Judd has denied the allegations. The Lakeland Ledger (http://bit.ly/1h0pN5i ) reports that Judd defends his use of pepper spray as a last resort for juveniles who refuse to obey commands. He credits it with ending confrontations before they turn physical.

Lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center showed video captured at the Polk County Jail during the first day of testimony on Monday. The security video shows a young man in a yellow jail uniform virtually disappearing under the punches and kicks of cellmates. Polk County deputies rush into frame, one wielding a stream of pepper spray.

The young man attacked in the video took the stand to describe the scene for Southern Poverty Law Center lawyers.

Miriam Haskell, a Southern Poverty lawyer, told U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday in her opening statement that pepper spray only perpetuates violence.

"It's used at the jail to threaten and instill fear," Haskell said.

Jonathan Trohn, a Lakeland lawyer representing the sheriff, argued the Southern Poverty Law Center's accusations aren't constitutional violations as alleged. Juveniles rarely received "objectively serious" injuries at the jail, he told the judge, and pepper spray is used "little more than three times a month."

The judge must consider the predisposition of the juveniles, Trohn argued, showing a picture of a shank that a fight-prone boy made. If the judge thinks jailhouse fights and suicide attempts were caused by the sheriff's policies, he said, "you're not seeing the whole picture."

Merryday ordered the lawyers to refer to children involved in the case by their initials only because they were minors when incidents occurred.

Testimony in the lawsuit continues on Tuesday.