Boys and girls at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons are strip searched frequently, sometimes in the sight of other inmates, according to new allegations in a federal court lawsuit over conditions in the two facilities.
"In the LHS (Lincoln Hills School) solitary confinement wings, defendants have strip searched youth where boys across the hall could see the youth being strip searched," the complaint says. "In CLS (Copper Lake School), defendants have strip searched youth in a room that has a mirror, so that people outside the room could see the girl being strip searched, and in a room with a camera that records video viewable by guards, including male guards."
The amended complaint, filed Monday by the ACLU of Wisconsin on behalf of inmates and former inmates at the schools, also alleges that guards use pepper spray so indiscriminately that it affects inmates up and down corridors. The suit seeks class action status. (The original complaint is covered here and here.)
The suit alleges violations of the plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search; Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment; and 14th Amendment right to due process.
The spray made him feel like his body and eyes were burning, and made him nauseated, light-headed, and short of breath. The solitary cells also had pepper spray residue in them that burned his skin.
The defendants, officials at the two schools and the State Department of Corrections, have not yet responded to the new allegations. In their response to the original suit, they denied violating the youths' constitutional rights.
The amended complaint alleges youth in solitary confinement at the prisons sometimes have to wait long for a guard to take them to the bathroom that they have accidents or must use cups to relieve themselves.
In addition, while youth in the general population generally get four to five hours of schooling per day, education is reduced to one hour per day for those in solitary and "there are also many days when no teacher comes and the youth do not receive any education," the suit alleges.
A plaintiff, identified as R.N. was on suicide watch at Lincoln Hills, according to the complaint.
In one incident there, "he reached an electrical cord attached to a fan near his door, pulled it through the food tray slot, and wrapped it around his neck," the complaint says.
Responding guards "initially pulled on the cord, leaving marks on R.N.’s neck, and then fogged his room with pepper spray," according to the complaint.
Another youth, identified as A.V., was exposed to pepper spray about four times when guards were spraying other people, the complaint says. "The spray made him feel like his body and eyes were burning, and made him nauseated, light-headed, and short of breath. The solitary cells also had pepper spray residue in them that burned his skin," according to the complaint.
Guards using pepper spray wore protective gear at times, but did not offer similar protection to inmates not the target of the spray, according to the complaint.
A girl was exposed to so much pepper spray targeted at someone else that it "made her cough up blood; the guards would not let her have her inhaler," according to the suit.
Another inmate at Copper Lake was placed in solitary confinement for behavior like passing notes or being accused of having stolen gummy worms in her cell, according to the complaint. She was also repeatedly strip searched, "at times...in a room with a mirror that meant someone walking outside the room could see her, and in a room with a camera that guards—including male guards—could use to view her," according to the complaint. "On one occasion a guard had a body camera activated during the strip search."
An inmate in solitary is supposed to have one hour of out-of-cell time for exercise, but often is "on the belt" during that time; that is, his or her hands are handcuffed and attached to a belt around the waist.
"For the girls at CLS in segregation, if they receive out time, the hour of 'out time' includes their shower, a period of time of room cleaning, and a limited amount of exercise before they are locked back in their cells," the complaint said. "If a girl has to go to health services or any other visit, that counts against her out time."
Girls are occasionally allowed additional time - up to three hours a day - out of their cell.
A Lincoln Hills inmate was in solitary continuously or almost continuously since October 2016, according to the complaint. He was "on the belt" for almost that entire time.
"Recently the guards have started making the handcuffs of the belt tighter around his wrists, and using a shorter 'leash' to attach the cuffs to the belt around his waist," according to the complaint.
The youth was strip searched where other boys could see him and "has been pepper sprayed so many times he can’t count them," the complaint says. "He has been pepper sprayed for many reasons, even at times for not going into his cell, for covering up the camera, to make him get into the shower, or because staff said (he) was going to harm himself."
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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