Political News

Judge orders changes at Wisconsin youth prisons by next week

Posted July 10

— The Wisconsin Department of Corrections must make a series of changes at Wisconsin's juvenile prisons to "drastically reduce" the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and shackles on young inmates by July 21, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson said in his order that the changes are intended to eliminate constitutional violations at the troubled Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons, which are about 155 miles north of Madison.

The Department of Corrections and attorneys representing past and current inmates submitted a largely agreed-upon plan on Friday for the judge to review following a court hearing detailing the disciplinary practices last month.

Peterson issued his preliminary injunction on Monday and it will remain in place pending the outcome of the lawsuit filed on behalf of the inmates by the American Civil Liberties Union and Juvenile Law Center.

ACLU attorney Larry Dupuis said the order represents a first step toward reducing the use of the disciplinary tactics and that the group looks forward to the day when the state eliminates them altogether.

The Corrections Department was reviewing the order to determine its next steps, said its spokesman, Tristan Cook.

"Our primary commitment is to maintain a safe and secure environment where youth in DOC custody can thrive," he said.

The department has made widespread changes at the prisons to align with national best practices and provide quality education, mental health services, programming, increased staff accountability and training, Cook said.

But evidence presented in court showed that Wisconsin was one of the few states that routinely has used pepper spray on juvenile inmates and sentenced them to solitary confinement, sometimes for periods lasting weeks.

The judge said in his order that while most critical changes must be in place by July 21, he's giving prison officials more time to implement other changes to their operating practices at the prisons that require additional training or programming for inmates.

Under the order, the Corrections Department must:

— review the cases of all youths in solitary confinement and release anyone held there for reasons that violate terms of the order.

— not place any juveniles in solitary confinement for minor infractions or non-violent offenses. Additional restrictions are placed on the use of solitary confinement for inmates with a mental health diagnosis.

— limit solitary confinement to no more than seven days and increase monitoring of those who are in isolation. Inmates in solitary confinement will also be allowed to take items in with them that other juveniles are allowed to have in their cells but that are currently barred in isolation.

— ensure that juveniles in isolation receive all regularly scheduled social worker visits, mental health and other health services, and rehabilitative programming that was in place prior to being placed in solitary confinement.

— allow inmates in solitary confinement more "out time" during which they can exercise and interact with other juveniles.

— only use pepper spray against inmates who are engaging in physical harm to others or in order to prevent harm to others.

— not mechanically restrain inmates unless they are being transported on or off site or if they pose an immediate and substantial risk of physical harm to themselves or others. And even then only the most minimal level of restraints would be allowed for short periods of time, unless there is written authorization from an administrator.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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