The state’s embattled youth prisons are not fully complying with a court order seeking to correct alleged abuses at the institutions, according to report filed Monday.
A prison monitor designated under a federal lawsuit found officials at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, located near Irma in northern Wisconsin, to be noncompliant with an order directing they make inmate cells suicide resistant and only partially compliant with an order mandating the reduced use of pepper spray on inmates.
Prison officials were also found to be partially compliant with several other orders from a federal judge, particularly in not doing enough to keep adequate documentation of their compliance with the court order.
Larry Dupuis, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections which resulted in the order, said the monitor’s status report shows some progress, but that most of the findings are worrisome.
“The monitor’s findings are very concerning,” Dupuis wrote in an email. “The inadequacy (in) suicide prevention, including routine checks of youth in cells, is especially worrisome.”
Dupuis said the monitor’s finding of noncompliance may support enforcement action by the court. Dupuis said he will work with state officials before taking any further legal action.
Lawsuit in 2017
The order mandating Lincoln Hills staff change how they operate stems from a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2017 on behalf of several youth inmates that challenged the use of solitary confinement and use of pepper spray. It accused prison officials of violating the youth offenders’ constitutional rights to live free from cruel and unusual punishment by using pepper spray on inmates and keeping them locked in isolation, sometimes for months, to manage their behavior.
In a settlement reached in June, DOC agreed to end the use of pepper spray and end the use of solitary confinement within 10 months.
“I know we can do better. However, I am proud of the work our staff has done so far and appreciate their cooperation and dedication through this process,” DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said in a statement.
The Briggs case
The state also agreed to pay about $19 million to Copper Lake youth inmate Sydni Briggs to settle a separate lawsuit. Briggs attempted suicide and was left hanging in her cell after guards took too long to respond, leaving the girl with permanent, severe brain damage. Briggs suffered from depression and anxiety and had harmed herself several times while at the youth prison.
Briggs’ suicide attempt happened 20 minutes after she activated a call light seeking help from staff, who had instructed her to call for help when she felt the urge to harm herself, according to Briggs’ attorneys.
She was likely left hanging between two and five minutes.
Slow response to call lights continues to be a problem, the report states, specifically when youths need to use the restroom because there are no toilets in their rooms. Several youth reported they urinated and defecated in their garbage cans due to the slow response time from staff.
While not required by the court order, the monitor also recommended staff conduct welfare checks every 15 minutes when youth inmates are confined to their rooms as a suicide prevention practice.
The settlement in Briggs’ lawsuit was the largest in a civil rights lawsuit in state history. It came on the same day lawmakers in the state Senate voted to shutter Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Former Gov. Scott Walker eventually signed into law legislation that is set to close the prisons by Jan. 1, 2021, and replace them with county and state-run facilities.
Lawmakers are considering moving the closures back by as much as six months to accommodate counties that would need to build or renovate youth facilities under the new law. According to the report, there are currently 140 inmates living at the facilities, down from about 170 in February.
‘Much more must be done’
Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are still under federal investigation for a slew of alleged abuses. Gov. Tony Evers visited the facilities on Friday, fulfilling one of his campaign promises.
“The report released today confirm’s the governor’s belief that much more must be done to improve safety and wellness for the students and staff at Lincoln Hills,” Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said in a statement.
Officials at the youth prisons have failed to comply with a federal judge’s order mandating suicide resistant rooms. The monitor, Teresa Abreu, wrote that none of the rooms at Lincoln Hills or Copper Lake could be deemed suicide resistant, pointing to untidiness and graffiti blocking guards’ views through windows, among other things.
“Several rooms had blankets/sheets covering large areas of the room making it difficult for staff to assess whether there is contraband that can be harmful to youth,” Abreu wrote. “There are beds and screening in some rooms that create increased suicide risk.”
Pepper spray, ‘hygiene’ checks
Abreu, who visited Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake in early December, also found officials did not fully comply with a mandate ordering the reduced use of pepper spray, noting its use when other measures would have been appropriate.
Pepper spray was used on inmates 14 times in November and 21 times in October, the report states. The report suggests prison staff develop an incentive-based behavior management program to reduce the need for pepper spray.
Abreu also found prison staff have largely replaced strip searches, which the court order required to be reduced, with “hygiene” checks, which “requires youth to strip to underwear and bra.” Abreu wrote that such searches should be used only if staff have probable cause to believe that inmates possess drugs or weapons.
The report also found that despite making limited progress, officials have continued to struggle with staffing the facilities adequately. For example, about 22 percent of youth counselor positions and 39 percent of teacher positions were vacant in November. In February, the vacancy rates for those positions were 48 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
“Staffing problems continue to exist, and they continue to be serious, chronic, and dangerous,” Abreu wrote.
Abreu recommended DOC pull staff from other state facilities to work at Lincoln Hills or consider hiring a private security company.
The vacancies have caused staff to work double shifts. Dupuis argued staffing shortages have likely contributed to the continued reliance on pepper spray.
Staff reported feeling nobody cares about them and that they do not feel adequately trained in the use of pepper spray, confinement and restraints. The monitor interviewed 25 staff members, who said they were “tired, frustrated and barely see their family and friends.”
Staffing vacancies are widespread in other Wisconsin prison facilities, prompting officials to pay about $50 million in overtime in 2018.
“Defendants will not be able to come into substantial compliance with the court order without solving the staffing issues,” Abreu wrote.
While Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake staff have long been subject to assault from youth inmates, Abreu noted staff safety has improved in the past year. For example, the report indicates four assaults on staff were recorded in October 2018 compared to eight a year prior, a 50 percent decrease.
The monitor and plaintiffs’ counsel interviewed 40 inmates for the review.