Lincoln Hills

State officials plan to reduce the use of pepper spray at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys in Irma.

Department of Corrections officials do not plan to stop using pepper spray on inmates at a youth prison that has been a target of a number of lawsuits brought by inmates alleging their constitutional rights have been violated by being sprayed excessively.

Instead, the department has developed an expansive plan to reduce its use and reports shorter stays in isolation for inmates have resulted in fewer combative incidents that typically require pepper spray, according to a report filed Tuesday by attorneys representing the state in a federal class-action lawsuit filed by current and former inmates.

The report comes weeks after prison officials told U.S. District Judge James Peterson, who is presiding over the case, that “significant unrest” among inmates at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma was hampering the state’s efforts to make changes ordered by Peterson.

In July, Peterson ordered DOC officials to stop keeping inmates at the prison in solitary confinement cells for weeks at a time and to dramatically reduce or eliminate using pepper spray and restraints on inmates.

Since that order, which limited inmates’ stays in isolation to seven days, some of the most common types of incidents at the prison to prompt guards to use pepper spray on the inmates to manage behavior has lessened, according to the report.

The new report outlines ways DOC is seeking to reduce its practice of using pepper spray on inmates in response to Peterson’s request that the department by Tuesday present a plan “to further reduce or eliminate any remaining use of chemical agents.”

It also comes just a few weeks after inmates who filed the lawsuit told Peterson that the use of pepper spray had not lessened since the order and instead had actually increased in the weeks following. DOC responded by saying unrest among inmates had hurt its ability to comply with Peterson’s order to curb the practices.

In recent weeks, prison staff have also reported more assaults from inmates who are not restrained and say inmates feel emboldened by the court order, resulting in an increasingly chaotic and unsafe environment.

DOC attorneys in the report credit the new approach to managing behavior to fewer times inmates refuse directives to stop abusing prison property in an unsafe manner — such as covering up cameras or windows — and fewer inmates holding their arms out of their cells’ trap doors.

The attorneys also noted, however, that pepper spray is still used if inmates are aggressive or physically threatening — the type of incidents to which prison staff are now limited to responding with pepper spray by the order.

According to the report, prison staff have instead created a “more structured schedule of out-time” when they are in the prison’s restrictive units, where solitary confinement cells are housed.

Staff also are now using a “trained hands-on escort technique” on inmates who refuse to comply with demands to move, instead of pepper spray, according to the plan.

Prison staff also now are placing inmates who are prone to holding their arms out of cells’ trap doors in cells “where they will not impede operations as much.” Instead of using pepper spray on the inmates who do this, prison staff now “work around the behavior as much as possible, without giving undue attention to the behavior,” such as using a plastic shield to protect guards and inmates when guards pass by.

Other elements of plan

According to DOC, the plan to prevent the use of pepper spray in the future includes:

  • Adding new activities to keep inmates busy throughout the day, including basketball tournaments, exercise programs, crafts and evening activities. Prison officials are hiring “Recreation Leader staff” to manage the activities.
  • Training staff in crisis intervention, ethics and boundaries, physical force techniques and appropriate use of restraints.
  • Creating a team of staff to respond to crisis situations.
  • Designating a room where inmates can visit for “reflection, problem resolution, and at times a calm environment to complete school assignments.”
  • Providing incentives to encourage good behavior.

A new unit also was recently created “to serve the most challenging” inmates by putting them in small groups that remain together throughout the day in a “staff-intensive, highly structured, treatment-rich environment.” A guard follows each group and attends all the inmates’ classes and group and recreational activities.

DOC attorneys noted they drew their ideas, in part, from a plan developed by the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Justice in 2016 to eliminate the use of pepper spray in its youth prisons.

According to a Jan. 4, 2016 article in the The Oklahoman, the two-year plan included allowing only a supervisor to carry pepper spray after six months; securing pepper spray in a lockbox at one year; and eliminating it completely by 24 months.

DOC officials said in the report, however, that they considered limiting who can carry pepper spray and storing cans of it in lockboxes or away from housing units, but the practices were not adopted because they could prevent guards from using pepper spray when inmates were being violent or harming others.

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