MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Juvenile offenders in Wisconsin claim in court that they are treated “like dogs, in cages” by guards who liberally use pepper spray without cause and are quick to resort to solitary confinement.
In a federal class-action lawsuit filed Monday in Madison, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center claim that at least 15 to 20 percent of residents at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls are locked in solitary confinement at any given time.
“The State of Wisconsin operates the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls, which incarcerate approximately 150-200 youth who are as young as 14 years old, in remote northern Wisconsin,” the complaint states. “The State routinely subjects these youth to unlawful solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spraying.”
The alleged infractions that warrant punishment forbidden by the United Nations as torture include “being loud and disruptive,” in the case of a girl with ADHD, and failing to remove shoes in another case, according to the ACLU and the JLC.
Wisconsin’s juvenile prisons have been under scrutiny since a federal raid in December 2015, when Department of Justice agents descended on the facilities to investigate reports of child abuse and cover-up by staff, according to local news reports.
The top brass at the schools left within days, and several state-level officials have also since been replaced.
Monday’s lawsuit focuses on the treatment of four juveniles, who appear through their parents with claims of excessive force, denial of the right to rehabilitation, and cruel and unusual punishment.
According to the most recent Wisconsin Department of Corrections data from October, 28 children making up about 17 percent of the schools’ total population were in solitary confinement.
When a child is placed in solitary confinement, they are locked in a 7-by-10-foot cell for 22 to 23 hours per day, according to the complaint. Lights remain on 24 hours a day, and are dimmed only from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
There is no call button in many of the cells, so youth inmates have to scream or cover their surveillance cameras to get attention from staff, the lawsuit states.
During the week, children in solitary confinement get just one hour of schooling, and one hour of time outside, the latter of which is regularly revoked for “minor infractions,” the complaint states. During these activities, the inmates wear a belt to which handcuffs are attached, and are chained to a table while outside.
Further, children are denied access to rehabilitative programs while in solitary confinement, completion of which can be required before their release or transfer, according to the complaint.
Plaintiff C.M. was once placed in solitary confinement for a week, only to be told upon release that no disciplinary report had been filed, the complaint states.
The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and a handful of other professional groups decry the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pointing to the myriad negative psychological effects that develop and remain after release, the complaint states.
But the guards at Wisconsin’s juvenile facilities do not stop at locking children away for weeks at a time, the ACLU alleges.
Between January and October 2016, guards used pepper spray on youth inmates at least 198 times, the complaint states. There is no policy requirement that pepper spray only be used in violent or threatening situations, and guards allegedly use it routinely for minor offenses.
The kind of spray varies, and includes “bear mace,” a product intended for use by hikers that is designed to stop an attacking bear, the lawsuit states.
One inmate claims being pepper-sprayed feels “like you were hit a hundred times,” according to the complaint.
After they are sprayed, children are placed in a cage in a shower, where they can choose more intense pain for a shorter duration by turning on the water, or prolonged pain by leaving the substance on their skin, according to the complaint.
J.J., one of the plaintiffs, once refused to return to his cell until he talked to a supervisor. When guards surrounded him and told him to lie on the floor, he refused and ran toward his cell, at which point “several guards” allegedly pepper-sprayed him as he ran past.
“According to J.J., the guards in the segregation units ‘treat us like dogs, in cages, causing us more trauma,’” the complaint states. “J.J. believes that the guards intentionally provoke him and trigger him to react.”
The four juvenile inmates are seeking injunctive relief in the form of a stop to the restraint, confinement and excessive-force practices at the two schools, the ACLU and JLC said in a live video press conference on Tuesday morning.
Tristan D. Cook, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, said the department is reviewing the case and has no comment.