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Youth Prison Investigation

Guards at Lincoln Hills School for Boys used pepper spray more than 100 times in the first six months of the year, according to a report filed in federal court.

Videos of two teen inmates being sprayed repeatedly by guards at the state's youth prison in Irma were released to the public on Thursday.

The recordings were shown during a two-day court hearing last month in lawsuit filed against the state Department of Corrections by former and current inmates at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls juvenile correctional facility. The inmates are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center.

One recording from April 2016 shows a female inmate being sprayed after refusing to go to her cell. Instead, the girl remained in the hallway pacing around. Eventually, a guard pepper-sprayed her when she continued to refuse to walk into her room. A guard sprayed her again after she dropped on the hallway floor with other guards holding her.

In a second video, guards twice sprayed an inmate who was inside his cell but refused to move his arms into the cell.

The plaintiffs' attorney showed two videos of incidents during which prison staff used pepper spray on inmates: one from a fixed security camera in the hallway of a Copper Lake housing unit and another from a handheld camera used to film an incident in a Lincoln Hills unit.

Redacted versions of the recordings were released Thursday after Judge James Peterson denied a request made on June 20 by lawyers representing the plaintiffs to show the videos in private.

The Wisconsin State Journal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Associated Press, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council had urged Peterson to allow the videos to be shown in court, and the judge agreed if those in the courtroom agreed not to identify the juveniles in the videos.

The recordings highlighted the youth prison's practice of using pepper spray to subdue teen inmates at the prison — a type of behavior management that expert witnesses for the plaintiffs argued was causing permanent damage to the teen inmates emotional development when used in conjunction with solitary confinement and restraints.

Peterson ordered DOC and the plaintiffs' attorneys to come up with a plan to dramatically reduce the use of all three techniques at the prison. The plan is due Friday.

Tristan Cook, spokesman for the DOC, said in a statement that the department has made "significant changes to institution operations and continues to identify opportunities for further improvement."

"We look forward to furthering our efforts to reduce the use of chemical agents and restraints, decrease the frequency and duration of youth stays in restrictive housing, and enhance education and programming provided to youth at Copper Lake School/Lincoln Hills School," he said. 



Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.