Florida Prisons

She’s 17 and in jail. Now, her lawyers are challenging ‘solitary confinement’

The Turner-Guilford Knight Correctional Center in West Miami-Dade
The Turner-Guilford Knight Correctional Center in West Miami-Dade Miami Herald

At 17 and accused of attempted murder, Jaimaijai Mensie has spent much of the past five months locked up in a Miami-Dade jail.

Because of the severity of the accusations, the teen has been charged as an adult. Under Florida law, she must be segregated from adult inmates. But because there is no dedicated unit to house underage women, jailers have placed her in a single cell at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center.

That cell is in the psychiatric unit. Her defense lawyers call it “solitary confinement.”

“The unit itself is profoundly chaotic,” a psychologist wrote to one of her lawyers. “There is, according to Jaimaijai, intense screaming, banging, and shouting around the clock — literally 24 hours a day. Jaimaijai reported that she had to go on a powerful psychotropic drug just to allow her to get to sleep each night.”

Mensie’s defense lawyers — saying her treatment amounts to cruel and unusual punishment — on Tuesday will ask a judge to move the teen from the adult jail. While she awaits trial, assistant public defenders Susan Lerner and Deborah Bogoslaw want their client to remain on house arrest with an electronic monitor.

In a twist, prosecutors agree Mensie’s living space is woeful. A top-ranking assistant state attorney described her being held in isolation for 23 hours a day as “unacceptable.” The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office wants her moved from the jail back to a juvenile detention facility.

“Because our belief that she is violent and a danger to community and based on the lack of a viable alternative at Dade County Corrections we would agree that juvenile secure detention is the only alternative,” Chief Assistant State Attorney Esther Jacobo wrote in an email to the Public Defender’s Office.

Mensie, who turned 17 in July, is being held without bond on a charge of attempted second-degree murder with a deadly weapon, five accounts of aggravated battery and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

In a statement, a Miami-Dade jail spokeswoman disputed that Mensie was being kept in “solitary confinement” and said her housing is “consistent” with jail standards recommended by a state sheriff’s association.

“Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department is committed to providing safe and secure housing that meets constitutional standards for the adult and juvenile inmate population,” according to the statement.

Under Florida law, juveniles charged as adults must be segregated from adult inmates. For underage males at TGK, there are two wings. Mensie is one of three underage female juveniles being housed at the jail.

Conditions for underage defendants in jails have long been an issue for juvenile-justice reformers, including the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, the American Civil Liberties Union and the group Solitary Watch.

In 2013, a proposed bill to limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles failed in Tallahassee. Florida’s Department of Corrections had argued against the bill, saying it did not have the resources to comply. The issue was elevated to the national level in January, when President Barack Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal detention centers.

But for females, there are none. Enter Mensie, who has a slew of arrests on juvenile record, including an armed carjacking charge at age 14. The exact outcome of that case is not public record, but she was not charged as an adult, state record show.

However, this year, Mensie was charged an adult in three additional cases.

Mensie is accused of shooting a man on the street in Overtown in March. The bullets damaged his pancreas and intestines but he survived. When a group of bystanders began chasing her, she fired at them; the bullets missed, according to police reports.

After her arrest, Mensie was charged with battery after a detention center staffer said Mensie grabbed her and pulled her to the ground by her hair. She is also facing a separate battery charge for allegedly spitting at AmiKids, a school for at-risk youth where she was in the 10th grade.

According to the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, Mensie has been placed in solitary only because of her age and gender, “not due to an inability to co-exist with fellow inmates,” according to a filing made in April.

In July, University of Miami clinical psychologist Neema Malik wrote a letter to Mensie’s lawyer, saying she had “grave concerns about the girl’s well being” after so long in the psychiatric unit at TGK.

“Jaimaijai appeared shaken, hyper-vigilant and extremely depressed during the interview,” Malik wrote. “She had a blank, unhappy stare throughout most of the interview, though loud noises from the unit, which were frequent, were clearly distracting and upsetting her.”

Malik added: “I am concerned that she may become suicidal or even be at a risk for a psychotic break, given the trauma she had already experience.”

The hearing is set before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie.