Inmates sue over conditions at Wisconsin youth prison
MADISON (AP) -- A group of current and former inmates at Wisconsin's youth prison filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging as much as 20 percent of the population is held in solitary confinement and guards needlessly pepper spray prisoners -- sometimes using spray designed to stop bears -- in violation of their constitutional rights.
The lawsuit comes as federal investigators are probing allegations of widespread inmate abuse at the prison in Irma in far northern Wisconsin. Asked for comment on the filing, state Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook said only that the agency would be reviewing the lawsuit.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of four children, all from Milwaukee County. Two are currently being held at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys, the male side of the prison. One is being held at the Copper Lake School for Girls, the facility's female section. The fourth was held at Lincoln Hills but has since been moved to a mental health treatment center. All four allege they were placed in solitary confinement. Two said they were pepper-sprayed; the female plaintiff said she suffered from a "cloud of pepper spray" when guards sprayed a neighboring inmate in solitary.
The lawsuit alleges anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent of the prison's population is held in solitary confinement at any given time. According to data the ACLU and Juvenile Law Center obtained from the Department of Corrections, 167 youth were held at the prison on Oct. 25, 2016. Of them, 28 youth, or nearly 17 percent, were in solitary confinement that day, the lawsuit claims.
Children in solitary are often locked up for 22 to 23 hours per day in cells that measure seven feet by 10 feet and smell like sweat and urine, the lawsuit said. The cells have no furnishings beyond a mattress; the Lincoln Hills cells have a metal sink and toilet but the Copper Lake cells have none and girls in solitary must be escorted to the bathroom.
The cells are lit around the clock, although the lights are dimmed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. The children aren't given any educational materials, games or toys beyond a single book. They receive a single hour of education outside the cell rather than the four or five other inmates receive.
Prison staff often put youth in solitary for a month to two months for minor infractions, especially if they've received previous discipline, the lawsuit said. Youth are given an hour outside their cells to exercise each day but they're handcuffed to a belt around their waist and are chained to tables.
The filing goes on to allege that guards at both the boys and girls facilities needlessly pepper spray inmates for minor non-violent infractions, including using a form of spray meant to ward off charging bears. According to DOC records, guards have used pepper spray on youth in their care at least 198 times between January and October 2016, the lawsuit said.
The prison staff has deliberately chosen to ignore the harm pepper spray can do to children, the lawsuit adds. The guards make pepper-sprayed inmates take showers in cages, making the spray's effects worse by exposing the children to water and spreading the spray to sensitive areas, according to the filing.
Solitary confinement and the guards' use of pepper spray amounts to excessive use of force and cruel and unusual punishment, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit asks a judge to declare it a class action suit and prohibit prison staff from using solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spray except in rare instances to avoid serious physical harm.
Lincoln Hills has been plagued by allegations of prisoner abuse, child neglect and sexual assault. The state began an investigation into the allegations in 2015. Ed Wall, then the DOC's secretary, resigned in February after word of the investigation became public.
The FBI has since taken over the probe. No one has been charged so far.