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Federal Judge Gives Wisconsin Two Weeks to Stop Harsh Treatment of Juvenile Offenders

LaToya Dennis
ACLU of Wisconsin says staff at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake have been excessively using pepper spray and solitary confinment.

A federal judge told Wisconsin on Friday that the way it treats incarcerated youth is unconstitutional. Of particular concern is the use of pepper spray, handcuffs and shackles – as well as solitary confinement. 

The ACLU of Wisconsin took the matter to court. The judge ordered the group and the state to submit a plan, in two weeks, to change practices. The Lincoln Hill School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls have been at the center of major investigations, over the treatment of youth.

When the ACLU filed its lawsuit accusing the state of cruel and unusual punishment, it said its lawyers had witnessed prison staff unnecessarily shackling juveniles. There were also complaints of the state keeping young offenders in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day for months at a time, and stories about young men not wanting to shower because so much pepper spray was used that it burned their skin as it was washed off.

“Ninety percent of the states do not use pepper spray in their juvenile facilities. And that points to the fact that it can be done,” says ACLU Attorney Tim Muth.

Muth says the impacts of being constantly restrained, pepper sprayed and held in solitary confinement are more than physical, they’re also mental.

“There was extensive testimony during the trial about the psychological impact of solitary confinement. How it actually potentially more aggressive behavior. It can cause psychological disorders and other problems,” Muth says.

The ACLU wanted the judge to immediately change practices at the two juvenile facilities, however the judge gave the two parties a couple weeks to come up with a plan.

“The judge believes that the staff at Lincoln Hills are not in a position where they know how to do it differently and that if he were to simply cut everything off immediately, there would be problems at Lincoln Hills,” Muth says.

Muth says he’s sure the state and the ACLU will disagree on how fast Wisconsin can enact change, but he is expecting rapid progress.

Democratic State Senator Lena Taylor says one way Wisconsin could improve juvenile corrections would be to stop treating children like adults and give more responsibility for their care to the Department of Children and Families.

“Our juvenile system needs to come out of DOC and it needs to go to DCF. I think that’s huge so that we can understand that there’s a different approach that we need to have,” Taylor says.

Taylor says the level of inhumanity DOC staff has shown to juveniles – most of whom are from Milwaukee, is sickening. She says if trauma informed care has taught us anything, it’s that youth need to be closer to home, not hours away at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, in northern Wisconsin.

Taylor has drafted legislation that would give Milwaukee County authority to create its own facility for its juveniles, but state lawmakers did not approve it.

“Why can we not have the authority to take care of our own kids? Why are we being denied? Why do our kids have to the money maker for individuals to have living wage jobs in other areas of the state? Why can’t our community, our nonprofits, our organizations like Running Rebels and other places that have a very good track record with young people - why can’t we create our mechanism?” Taylor asks.

For more than a year now, Milwaukee County has also been looking at ways to care for its juveniles in detention centers closer to home. There was a proposal, but the state did not give its approval because the facility did not meet security requirements. County Supervisor Peggy Romo West says she’s frustrated.

“I mean, if we had our way, we would have found solutions very early on and we would have started pulling the kids and bringing them home,” West says.

Late last week, the Milwaukee County Board passed a resolution continuing to push for facilities here for juveniles. West says the county is working to open two group homes on the north side to fill some of the needs.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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