Juvenile Wis. inmates file lawsuit over conditions
They alleged officials used pepper spray excessively and kept juveniles in solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time
By Patrick Marley
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MADISON, Wis. — Juvenile inmates filed a class action lawsuit Monday against Wisconsin officials, alleging they used pepper spray excessively and kept teens in solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time.
Over eight months last year, one 14-year-old boy was kept in solitary confinement for all but two weeks, the lawsuit alleges. Pepper spray was used nearly 200 times over 10 months at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, which share a campus 30 miles north of Wausau, according to the lawsuit.
"The state routinely subjects these youth to unlawful solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spraying," attorney Rachel Graham wrote in the suit. "Prior to state and federal raids on the facility at the end of 2015, staff also regularly physically abused youth in the facility."
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Madison by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, is the latest sign of trouble for Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. The facilities have been under criminal investigation for child abuse and neglect for two years, but prosecutors have not said whether or when they might file charges.
The ACLU brought the lawsuit on behalf of four inmates but is seeking to include all current and future inmates as a class action lawsuit. It contends the state is using excessive force, violating the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process.
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation last month found that state officials missed repeated warning signs at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Contributing to the problems were lax management, confusion over policies, a lack of communication and chronic staff shortages.
Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook said Monday the agency would review the lawsuit but had no other comment.
Last week, he emphasized that the department has transformed how Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake operate over the last year by installing more surveillance cameras, equipping staff with body cameras, enhancing training and requiring nurses -- rather than guards -- to dispense medication to inmates.
The lawsuit contended 15% to 20% of the inmates are kept in 7-foot-by-10-foot cells for 22 or 23 hours of the day. Many are handcuffed to a desk for the one hour a day they are out of solitary confinement, according to the lawsuit. About 170 inmates are housed at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
"The segregation cells are dirty and smell like sweat and urine," Graham wrote in the lawsuit.
While in segregation, the teens get just an hour of education a day, instead of the usual four to five hours, the lawsuit says. During that hour, they are often handcuffed to a desk.
"It is obvious that shackling a child to a table for the only hour he or she is allowed out of her cell is demeaning, psychologically harmful and prevents essential large-muscle exercise," Graham wrote.
Pepper spray meant for bears
In the first 10 months of last year, pepper spray was used 198 times, according to the lawsuit. Often, a brand of pepper spray is used that is meant to protect hikers from bears.
Inmates are given showers after they are sprayed, but that can often temporarily worsen the effects as the pepper spray runs into their groins and other sensitive areas, the lawsuit says.
The 14-year-old who spent most of eight months in solitary confinement at one point got hold of an electrical cord for a fan that was outside his cell. The boy, who has been on suicide watch, pulled the cord through a food slot into his cell and wrapped it around his neck.
When guards responded to the incident, they pulled on the cord and then blasted his cell with pepper spray, according to the suit.
The boy, identified only by his initials, was transferred last month to Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison.
The investigation by the Journal Sentinel last month found Gov. Scott Walker and other officials for years ignored indications of a brewing crisis at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. A judge wrote to Walker directly about a 2012 incident in which a juvenile inmate who had been beaten and sexually assaulted did not get medical attention for hours. Walker's aides did not pass the judge's memo onto the governor and no one was disciplined over the prison's handling of the assault.
In another incident, a teen inmate had to have parts of two toes amputated after a guard shoved him into a room and slammed a door on his foot in November 2015. Taxpayers paid him $300,000 last year to avoid a lawsuit.
The criminal investigation is headed by the FBI and looking into allegations of prisoner abuse, child neglect, sexual assault, intimidation of witnesses and victims, strangulation and tampering with public records. There have been at least four instances in which inmates' bones have been broken, according to records.
The ACLU of Wisconsin in 2006 sued the state over its women's prison, Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac. That lawsuit led to changes in how medicine is dispensed and provided for more medical and psychiatric care at the prison.
Monday's lawsuit was filed against Jon Litscher, the state's corrections secretary; John Paquin, the administrator of juvenile corrections; Wendy Peterson, the superintendent of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake; and Brian Gustke, the security director for the facilities.
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