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Lincoln Hills

A sign in Irma directs traffic to the state's youth prison. Current and former inmates at the state's Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls juvenile detention center are, with the ACLU of Wisconsin, suing the state over the Department of Corrections' treatment of inmates. 

Wisconsin is one of just a handful of states that has allowed its youngest prison inmates to be punished by placing them in solitary confinement for more than 10 days — a practice that is at the heart of a federal lawsuit filed this week.

And it’s in the minority nationally in not prohibiting punitive solitary confinement, which inmates at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls have faced as punishment for serious misbehavior since the facility opened in 1970, according to a 2016 survey conducted by the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest.

That means teenagers sentenced to serve time at the state’s youth prison in Irma face being taken to a cell no larger than about the size of a gas station bathroom, outfitted with a single metal bed and metal toilet. There’s one window in the cell’s door, as wide as the inmate’s face, that looks across a hallway into another cell. Food is slid through what could be a mail slot.

In some cases, inmates at the youth prison have spent weeks at a time in isolation, according to current and former inmates and staff. The official policy limits confinement in isolation to 60 days.

That practice, along with alleged overuse of pepper spray and mechanical restraints, violates inmates’ constitutional rights, according to a federal lawsuit brought this week by four current and former inmates of the state’s youth prison, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. They allege the state Department of Corrections has violated inmates’ rights to live free from cruel and unusual punishment.

“They do deserve to be punished but do they deserve to be treated like that?” John Levy of Milwaukee, a father of a current inmate at Copper Lake who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said at a news conference Tuesday.

A DOC spokesman declined to comment.

Levy and the inmate’s mother, Meranda Davis, said their daughter feels she has been mistreated by the mostly white staff because she is black. They said she has been held in isolation and been pepper sprayed, suffered a bloody nose because so much pepper spray was being used on an inmate in a cell next to hers and had a nervous breakdown last year and attempted suicide because of the treatment she received from staff.

Levy said his daughter committed auto theft and battery.

The lawsuit also alleges inmates’ rights are being violated by the amount of pepper spray and level of restraints being used on inmates to control behavior.

“I feel that they need to do better or they need to shut down,” Davis said of the Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake facility.

Practices revised

DOC officials named as defendants in the lawsuit have already begun to revise practices — limiting the amount of time an inmate is taken to what are known as security cottages, where inmates are kept in solitary confinement. The changes came about six months ago after nearly every Department of Corrections official involved in juvenile corrections, at both the facility and the state level, had been replaced or had resigned in the wake of a two-year state and federal investigation into alleged abuses at the facility.

Now, the ACLU and its plaintiffs are seeking to force large-scale changes in practice — including eliminating the current use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders altogether — in the absence of a resolution to the investigation.

“If I had any reason to believe (a resolution) was imminent, we may have held off,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU in Wisconsin.

Dupuis said inmates are still being mistreated at the facility despite the ongoing investigation. He cited an incident during which ACLU officials witnessed an inmate be pepper sprayed for failing to remove his shoes.

Kenneth Streit, a UW-Madison Law School professor who specializes in criminal justice issues, said the lawsuit could allow the plaintiffs’ attorneys to provide answers to questions the state and federal investigation has failed to yield thus far.

“It doesn’t take you two years to figure out what’s going on here,” Streit said.

According to allegations contained in the lawsuit, inmates in the state’s youth prison are locked up for nearly 24 hours in the cells that measure 7-feet-by-10-feet and have little more than a book and a toothbrush to keep them occupied. Boys are not allowed to flush the toilets in the cells, while girls must be escorted to a bathroom. Lights are kept on at all times but dimmed at night. The inmates get one hour of instruction from a teacher who comes to the cottage.

“During this time, they may be locked to a desk in the classroom,” according to the lawsuit’s allegations.

Streit said the practice of solitary confinement may work for some people “but not for juveniles.”

Illinois overhaul ordered

The lawsuit, which is seeking to change policies and collect attorneys’ fees, is similar to a federal class-action suit brought by the ACLU a few years ago against the state of Illinois. That case spurred a court-ordered overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice system.

In recent years, there has been increasing agreement that youth offenders should not be treated like adult offenders.

In 2016, former President Barack Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons, saying the practice is tied to lasting psychological consequences and, for juveniles especially, increases the risk of suicide.

Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, said at the news conference that if she treated her teenage son in a similar manner to how inmates are treated in the Irma facility, “it would be called child abuse.”

“If I chained him to a table, if I sprayed him with pepper spray, it would be called child abuse,” she said.

Department of Justice spokesman Johnny Koremenos said DOJ attorneys will not represent the state in the lawsuit because of its involvement in the criminal investigation. Gov. Scott Walker’s office with hire an outside attorney, Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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