The ACLU asked a judge Wednesday to temporarily ban the use of solitary confinement "for disciplinary or punitive purposes" at the state's Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile prisons.
In a motion for a temporary injunction, the ACLU of Wisconsin also asks the federal court to "eliminate the routine use of mechanical restraints, including handcuffing juveniles in solitary confinement to a waist belt and tethering youth to a table during their only time out of their cells."
Joining the ACLU in its filing was the Juvenile Law Center, with pro-bono assistance from Quarles & Brady.
It also seeks to "eliminate the use of pepper spray for punishment and behavior management or control."
Exceptions to the prohibitions would be allowed to prevent imminent and serious harm to people.
"Plaintiffs file this motion for interim relief due to the extreme and ongoing danger posed
by these practices," the ACLU, Juvenile Law Center and Quarles & Brady said in a brief accompanying the motion.
“Isolating, handcuffing and pepper spraying children is not only dehumanizing and traumatizing, it is also unnecessary and counterproductive," Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said in a prepared statement.. "As experts in the field show, these practices actually undermine institutional safety and security. As a result, most juvenile correctional facilities no longer use pepper spray, restraints or punitive solitary confinement.”
The ACLU has filed suit on behalf of past and current inmates of the two facilities alleging the extreme disciplinary practices at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake violate the inmates' constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and cruel and unusual punishment. The practices also violate the youths' due process rights, according to the suit.. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson.
The brief says that solitary confinement is known to cause psychological harm to adolescents.
"Research on adolescent development makes clear why juvenile solitary confinement is 'uniquely harmful'," the brief says, adding, "Stress derails brain development, and for a juvenile, simply being placed in isolation – the utter helplessness of it – is enormously stressful."
The brief says pepper spray use is on the upswing. "The use of pepper spray at LHS/CLS has increased dramatically since the beginning of 2016," the brief says. LHS/CLS (Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School) staff documented 198 pepper spray incidents in the first 10 months of 2016 – nearly 20 deployments per month, compared with 45 incidents in all of 2015."
Several juveniles have displayed symptoms such as difficulty breathing or coughing blood after being exposed to pepper spray, the brief says.
“These practices are so harmful that we’re taking decisive action to stop them immediately,” said Jessica Feierman, Associate Director of Juvenile Law Center. “Putting children in solitary, shackling them to tables, and pepper spraying them isn’t rehabilitation – it’s abuse.”
Vincent Schiraldi, a juvenile corrections expert from the Harvard School of Government, describes Wisconsin's practices as “excessively restrictive" and "a substantial departure from accepted professional standards, practice and judgment," according to the brief.
The full brief is below.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
Sign up for the free WJI newsletter.
Help WJI advocate for justice in Wisconsin