MADISON, Wis. (CN) – A federal judge on Friday ordered the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and civil-rights attorneys to work together to agree on changes to the state’s juvenile prison system, which has been the target of multiple lawsuits this year.
“Ted Kaczynski has less restrictive solitary confinement than youth at Lincoln Hills,” U.S. District Judge James Peterson said at a hearing, in reference to the convicted killer known as the Unabomber, according to Associated Press.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Juvenile Law Center lawyers had asked the judge to halt Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile prisons’ use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and use of shackles in a federal class-action lawsuit filed in January.
The groups say the state is using excessive force on juvenile inmates in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process.
At any given time, about 15 to 20 percent of the inmates at the two juvenile prisons are locked in solitary confinement, which means spending 22 to 23 hours per day in a 7- by-10-foot cell, according to the lawsuit.
In a three-page order issued Friday, Judge Peterson said the maximum amount of time juvenile inmates spend in isolation must reflect national norms, which is usually five to seven days.
He said solitary-confinement procedures must also allow adequate daily interaction, at least one hour, with other people for physical and mental stimulation. During this time, the use of mechanical restraints may only be used to protect the safety of inmates or staff, according to the ruling.
The judge also said the restriction to one book inside a solitary-confinement cell “is excessive.”
Further, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake “must develop a plan to reduce or eliminate the use of incapacitating agents,” such as pepper spray, according to the order.
Ninety percent of states currently don’t allow the use of pepper spray in youth prisons at all.
“[The Department of Corrections, or DOC] has consistently worked to identify and implement substantial reforms at Copper Lake School/Lincoln Hills School. We look forward to using the next two weeks to further these efforts,” Tristan Cook, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, said in an email. “Secretary [Jon] Litscher has full confidence in the Division of Juvenile Corrections to continue making necessary reforms.”
The changes are not immediate. The Department of Corrections must to come to an agreement with the plaintiffs’ attorneys within two weeks on how and when to implement the proposed structural changes.
“This [is] a major step forward for youth in Wisconsin. 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,” ACLU of Wisconsin Legal Director Larry Dupuis said in a statement.
In addition to the ACLU’s complaint, another lawsuit filed in January claims staff at the Copper Lake School deliberately ignored warning signs that could have saved a disabled teen who tried to kill herself and ended up with permanent brain damage.