Judge Sets Reform Timeline for Wisconsin Juvenile System

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Two weeks after condemning the harsh treatment of juveniles in Wisconsin detention centers — “Ted Kaczynski has less restrictive solitary confinement than youth at Lincoln Hills,” he had said — a federal judge finalized a series of reforms that will begin taking effect on July 21.

The 10-page injunction issued Monday by U.S. District Judge James Peterson bars the juvenile jails from placing youth in solitary confinement for minor infractions and nonviolent offenses.

His order comes two weeks exactly from an explosive court hearing where Peterson called on the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to iron out reforms with the attorneys accusing it of civil-rights abuses at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile prisons.

“The court placed substantial and severe restrictions on use of solitary, mechanical restraints and pepper spray,” Marsha Levick, deputy director and co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, said of the new ruling in an email.

Along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Juvenile Law Center brought a federal complaint in January that accused the state of using excessive force on juvenile inmates in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and the due-process guarantee of the 14th Amendment.

The groups alleged that about 15 to 20 percent of the inmates at the two juvenile prisons are locked at any given time in solitary confinement, spending 22 to 23 hours per day in a 7- by-10-foot cell.

Monday’s injunction requires the state to begin a review by July 21 of all youth currently held in solitary confinement. Those who are being held for reasons that violate the terms of the injunction must be released as soon as possible.

After reviewing the statuses of any detainees held in isolation, the ruling says all juvenile inmates in the restrictive-housing units will be reviewed to determine whether any can be released early for positive behavior.

Any juvenile inmate in isolation will be allowed rehabilitative programming, educational services, meals out of the cell and 30 hours of “out time” per week, with a minimum of two hours per day. Those in isolation longer than 24 hours will receive daily contact with a mental health provider.

Corrections officials will be required to justify in writing all use of disciplinary solitary confinement, both pre-hearing and post-hearing, and they must get approval from a shift supervisor. The juveniles being placed in solitary confinement meanwhile must be provided with written notification that explains the reason for their confinement and what less-restrictive measures have already been attempted.

Judge Peterson also wants the jails to provide improvement plans within the next three months that target reductions in restrictive-housing use.

By July 21, the jails must modify policies so that juvenile inmates will be allowed to have personal property similar to or the same as those allowed in the general population.

Peterson had it excessive last month to impose a one-book restriction inside a solitary-confinement cell.

Another provision of the injunction restricts the jails to using pepper spray and other chemical agents on juveniles only if they are physically harming others or to prevent such behavior.

Pepper spray is banned altogether at youth prisons in 90 percent of states.

Judge Peterson set a deadline of Aug. 31, 2017, for the state to issue a pattern and trend report on pepper-spray usage.

His ruling also says that youth can be put in mechanical restraints only if a youth counselor, youth counselor advanced, or supervisor in a living unit approves in writing the use of the restraints for up to 45 minutes.

Most of the changes are scheduled to take effect July 21, but those that require additional training or programming will be given extra time.

“We are moving rapidly to identify the needed changes and determining how we can best ensure that staff are appropriately trained,” DOC spokesman Director Tristan Cook in an email. “Ultimately, our goal is to maintain a safe and secure environment for DOC staff and youth while prioritizing education, treatment, and programming. Department, division, and institution leadership are working collaboratively to ensure that Copper Lake School/Lincoln Hills School has the necessary resources to successfully implement the changes.”

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