Monitor: Despite 'significant improvements,' problems persist at Wisconsin's youth prisons

IRMA — Wisconsin's juvenile prisons continue to use pepper spray on young inmates and keep them in solitary confinement for longer than seven days at a time in defiance of a federal court order, according to a report released Monday.

While "significant improvements" have been made in how the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons operate, "there is still more work to do" to be in compliance with a federal court order, an independent monitor, Teresa Abreu, contends in the report.

The report was filed in federal court in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center against the state over conditions at the prisons.

The groups represented inmates who alleged in 2016 that conditions were so bad at the prisons they violated their constitutional rights to live free from cruel and unusual punishment.

The groups signed a deal last year to end the class-action lawsuit. The state agreed to submit to ongoing monitoring at the prisons as part of the agreement and all parties agreed to have the monitoring be done by Abreu, an attorney and prison consultant who previously helped run a juvenile detention center in Cook County, Illinois.

Gov. Tony Evers' spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said the report "confirms the governor's belief that much more must be done to improve safety and wellness for the students and staff at Lincoln Hills." She said Evers looks forward to working with Department of Corrections staff, community advocates, legislators, and local leaders on "bipartisan, common sense solutions."

Karen Lindell, senior attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, said in a statement reacting to the report that while there are "some limited improvements, many alarming and harmful conditions remain."

The report makes clear that the state needs to proceed "quickly" with its plans to remove all inmates from the prisons, said Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Wisconsin.

The court order barred any punitive room confinement to no more than seven days at a time. Abreu found that although the majority of inmates are not confined for longer stretches, not all of the documentation is reliable.

The court order also required a reduction in the use of pepper spray on inmates, but Abreu found that inmates were being sprayed when lesser means could have been used. She recommended directing that spray only be used in life-threatening situations.

Abreu did note that no inmates in their living units were observed in mechanical restraints, which she called a "vast improvement" from what was observed during a visit nine months earlier.

She said the state hasn't complied by making rooms "suicide resistant." She also recommended a number of improvements and said inmate safety welfare checks should be increased to a minimum of every 15 minutes. Last year, taxpayers paid nearly $19 million to settle a case brought by an inmate who suffered brain damage after she tried to hang herself and wasn't checked on for 42 minutes.

Abreu cited a number of ongoing problems, including a lack of meaningful programming for the inmates, staffing shortages that were "serious, chronic, and dangerous," and concerns from staff that they weren't adequately trained or prepared to use alternatives to pepper spray, confinement and restraints as the court order requires.

A federal investigation into Wisconsin's juvenile prisons began more than three years ago although no charges have been announced. There have been a number of lawsuits filed by inmates alleging abuse by prison guards. Last year, the state agreed to pay $18.9 million under a settlement with one former juvenile inmate who suffered brain damage after she tried to hang herself in her cell.

The prisons, which are just north of Irma, are slated to close by 2021 under a restructuring of the system approved last year by the Legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker. Evers, who defeated Walker, toured the prisons on Friday, fulfilling a campaign promise to go there during his first week in office.