The most aggressive inmates at the state’s troubled youth prison could be removed and sent elsewhere under a plan Department of Corrections officials are considering as a way to decrease the number of incidents at the facility.

The potential new program is one response from the department to reports of an increasingly chaotic environment at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls after a federal order requiring prison officials to reduce or eliminate the use of pepper spray, restraints and solitary confinement.

While staff and DOC say the order has contributed to more violent episodes from a small number of inmates, attorneys representing inmates in a federal class-action lawsuit against DOC over the practices say DOC’s inability to adequately staff the prison and provide beneficial programs is needed to restore safety to the prison.

According to records released to the Wisconsin State Journal on Friday under the state’s open records law, the number of times inmates assaulted or tried to hurt staff at the Irma prison have risen more than 30 percent so far this year since 2016.

DOC staff at the youth prison recorded 195 times staff members were injured in 2017, assaulted or inmates attempted to assault staff — up from 145 incidents recorded in 2016 and 32 reported incidents in 2015.

It’s unclear whether that two-year jump is partially due to staff recording more incidents after 2015, when a federal investigation prompted DOC to hire new prison administrators and change its practices on record keeping. A DOC spokesman did not respond to a request for clarification.

The records provide a glimpse into conditions at the youth prison, where both inmates and guards have reported an unsafe environment that staff members say has grown increasingly chaotic in recent months after the federal order.

The records show incidents ranging from inmates spitting on guards and throwing milk at guards to guards getting injured while trying to break up fights between inmates and inmates punching guards. Inmates also have thrown urine at staff, ejaculated in front of staff and attacked guards, causing concussions, the records show.

Also during a four-day span in October, staff found razor blades, makeshift weapons, sharpened nails and a notebook recording staffing patterns in inmates’ cells, records show. An inmate also was able to smoke a cigarette during that time period.

Staff have said U.S. District Judge James Peterson’s July order in the class-action lawsuit against DOC has emboldened inmates to misbehave and become violent.

The lawsuits were brought after state and federal authorities began investigating claims of abuse of inmates — a nearly three-year review now overseen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Reports filed Friday

Attorneys representing inmates in the federal class-action lawsuit, and attorneys representing DOC, agree that the facility’s employees are struggling to implement the court order to make changes, but disagree about why, according to reports filed by both parties in federal court Friday.

DOC attorneys say inmates kept in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours now receive a daily visit from a mental health provider face-to-face or by phone or video conference. Staff also try to provide academic and rehabilitative lessons to inmates being held in solitary confinement — requirements of the federal order.

The DOC attorneys also argued that the court order limiting the use of solitary, pepper spray and restraints have contributed to violent incidents.

“These examples indicate how the (order) is causing unrest at the (prison) and direct ways certain youth are using specific provisions and even the general existence of the (order) as an apparent motivator to act out, sometimes violently,” the attorneys wrote. “More importantly, though, these examples indicate how the (order) very quickly — indeed, perhaps too quickly — forced LHS and CLS to transition from a deterrent-based institution to a positive-reinforcement-based institution.”

But attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union-Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center, which are representing inmates in the lawsuit against DOC, argued that the DOC is failing to adequately staff the prison, provide adequate programming for inmates and to implement the order’s goals. Some inmates causing the trouble are not being treated properly either, the inmates’ attorneys argued.

“To the extent that the facility struggles with violent behavior by some youth, the appropriate response is to ensure adequate staffing, programming, treatment, security policies, and supervision – not to reimpose abusive and unconstitutional conditions,” the inmates’ attorneys wrote. “(The DOC’s report) suggests that Defendants are still far from providing the positive programming needed to ensure a safe facility and also lack adequate staffing.”

State: Few youth causing trouble

When Peterson’s order was issued, DOC attorneys did not file an appeal and said it would implement its requirements.

But in Friday’s report, DOC attorneys blamed the short window to implement the order on a burst of violence and unsafe behavior among “a very small percentage of the youth.”

“It is well recognized that incentives and positive reinforcement have great utility; however, for youth that are not governed by social ethics or concern for others, who may have little remorse or conscience, the ability to have meaningful alternatives for negative/aggressive behavior is imperative,” the attorneys wrote.

One solution is to identify inmates who could be removed from the prison altogether, the DOC attorneys said, and be placed in a long-term treatment facility. The inmates would be identified through a program that “will focus on youth who display aggressive, assaultive behavior, and who may otherwise find themselves in restrictive housing on a routine basis.”

The inmates’ attorneys argued the prison staff are not properly trained and are not providing to inmates adequate programs, exercise or time out of their housing units to prevent violent behavior and to keep from violating inmates’ constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Prison data show inmates in Wisconsin’s youth prison spend many more hours per day idle in their rooms or housing units than the average juvenile inmate, the inmates’ attorneys said, and the percentage of inmates who report at least one hour of “large muscle exercise” each day and two hours on weekends between 2015 and 2017 also is “far below average.”

“The problem is compounded, if not caused, by inadequate staffing,” the inmates’ attorneys wrote.

The inmates’ attorneys also said the order should go further and require DOC to “put in place the interventions needed to run LHS safely and constitutionally.”

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