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Lincoln Hills progress report

The state's troubled youth prison is working to comply with a court order to reduce its use of isolation and pepper spray on inmates, but the process has caused "significant unrest" that put staffers and inmates in danger, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections has told a federal judge.

The state’s troubled youth prison has yet to fully comply with a judge’s order to curb the use of isolation, pepper spray and other tactics on inmates, say inmates who challenged those practices in federal court.

The state Department of Corrections says “significant unrest” among inmates in response to a federal judge’s July order hampered its ability to comply.

The comments came in a report released in federal court Wednesday. The report examines the Department of Corrections’ compliance with U.S. District Court Judge James D. Peterson’s order, which affected Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, both in Irma.

‘Limited progress’

Plaintiffs in the suit, brought by nine current and former inmates, told the court that the Department of Corrections has made “limited progress” following Peterson’s order but has yet to fully comply.

“In aggregate, the number of children subjected to solitary confinement and pepper spray remains troublingly high,” the plaintiffs say. The current and former inmates are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center.

They say staffers at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake continue to put inmates in isolation for non-violent offenses, a practice to which Peterson ordered a halt. The department responds that teen inmates have not been put in isolation “for disciplinary or punitive purposes” since Aug. 14 “except in isolated instances.”

Plaintiffs also say that since Peterson’s order was issued, the use of pepper spray on inmates at the prison actually increased. Records show that from July 21 to Aug. 28 pepper spray was used on inmates 48 times, the plaintiffs noted.

Peterson called for use of the spray to be limited to “when a youth is engaging in physical harm to others or to prevent the youth from causing bodily harm to another.”

The department said staffers have followed those instructions “except in extremely rare instances.”

The department also says it made strides in curbing use of isolation and restraints for teen inmates. Staffers are tracking and reducing the use of isolation, monitoring how it may affect an inmate’s mental health diagnosis, should they have one, and limiting punitive inmate stays in isolation to no more than seven days, it said.

The department also said it has limited its use of mechanical restraints of inmates, which the plaintiffs did not dispute.

But “significant unrest” among teen inmates followed issuance of the court order and impeded efforts to comply with it, the department said.

“This unrest manifested in forms including heightened instances of physical and verbal abuse by youth, and heightened instances of youth refusing to follow or comply with orders, using the court’s injunction as the reason for such refusal,” the department told Peterson.

The state’s only youth prison came under criminal investigation — first by state and then federal authorities — in 2015 for alleged abuse and neglect of its teen inmates.

Peterson blasted state corrections officials during a June court hearing for subjecting teen inmates in Wisconsin to “the most severe and damaging type of solitary confinement that is used in the American penal system.”

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.