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Judge: Cruelty, isolation at WI juvenile prisons must change

by | Jun 30, 2017 | Criminal Appeals

The federal judge hearing the case on Wisconsin’s juvenile prisons commented that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, suffers less restrictive solitary confinement than do the juveniles confined at the Lincoln Hills School correctional facility in Irma.

Youthful offenders often spend 22 or 23 hours a day in a 7×10 cell at Lincoln Hills. During that time, they’re allowed only a single book. They’re often shackled, even when that seems to serve no safety goal. If they make trouble, they are subjected to incapacitating agents like pepper spray, or to excessive force.

The conditions at Lincoln Hills and similar conditions at the Copper Lake correctional school are the subject of a civil rights lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center. The advocacy groups claim the juvenile prisons are in violation of the inmates’ Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law.

Moreover, the conditions at the two juvenile facilities are far worse than at other juvenile prisons across the U.S. For example, juveniles confined at the two facilities spend far more time in solitary confinement than do youthful offenders in other states. Moreover, ninety percent of U.S. states don’t even allow the use of pepper spray in juvenile facilities.

In a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the juveniles, the two advocacy groups had asked the federal judge to put a hold on the facilities’ use of solitary confinement, shackles and pepper spray. Instead, the judge has ordered the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to work directly with the groups and craft a plan that will meet constitutional muster.

Judge orders Wisconsin facilities to come up to national norms

The court issued a three-page order that laid out some ground rules. For one thing, limiting juveniles to a single book while in solitary “is excessive,” he wrote. He also ordered the facilities to set a plan in motion to reduce or eliminate the use of incapacitating agents like pepper spray on offenders.

When it comes to solitary confinement, the facilities must at least reflect national norms, the judge ordered, which is no longer than five to seven days in a row. Furthermore, juveniles in solitary must have access to adequate physical and mental stimulation, which means at least an hour in the company of other people — unshackled, unless they’re a danger to others.

“The Court recognized that Wisconsin is an extreme outlier in its reliance on pepper spray, restraints and punitive solitary confinement and that these practices are unnecessary and counterproductive. We need to eliminate these cruel practices immediately,” said the Wisconsin legal director of the ACLU.

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