ACLU wants to bar public from Lincoln Hills hearing

MADISON — The American Civil Liberties Union, with the state Department of Corrections in agreement, is seeking to bar the public from the courtroom when videos are shown of inmates being pepper-sprayed at a troubled Wisconsin youth prison.

Attorneys for the ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center asked U.S. District Judge James Peterson in a court filing Tuesday to close the court when the recently obtained videos are shown during a scheduled Thursday hearing. They said the state Department of Corrections, which is the defendant in the lawsuit, concurs with closing the courtroom.

The ACLU and Juvenile Law Center represent a group of current and former inmates who say the state's use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and shackling at the Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills youth prisons in Irma amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. A hearing on Thursday is to consider whether to temporarily stop the practices while the lawsuit proceeds.

In its request to remove the public from the hearing while the videos are played, attorneys argue that they have not had the time to obscure the faces of the young inmates or to alter audio in which their names are spoken. The attorneys said they received the videos from the state Department of Corrections on June 9.

Rather than closing the courtroom, the ACLU and Juvenile Law Center said in the filing that they were open to other means to protect the identities of the youth depicted in the recordings.

Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook deferred questions to the private law firm defending the state in the case. Attorneys with the law firm, Crivello Carlson, did not immediately reply to messages seeking comment.

The lawsuit comes as federal investigators are probing allegations of widespread inmate abuse at the prison. The lawsuit alleges that anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent of the prison's population is held in solitary confinement at any given time. It also alleges that guards at both the boys and girls prisons 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 used pepper spray on youth in their care at least 198 times between January and October 2016, the lawsuit said.