Wisconsin Keeps Kids in Solitary Confinement – Federal Judge Agrees Practice Is Unconstitutional, Issues Injunction & Orders Changes (2017-2018)
In 2017, the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) and the ACLU of Wisconsin filed a federal class action lawsuit against Wisconsin officials for subjecting kids to solitary confinement, pepper spray, and other abusive practices at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls. On September 13, 2018, the federal judge in the case signed off on a settlement to limit solitary confinement and end the use of pepper spray. Under the settlement, youth cannot be placed in solitary confinement as a form of punishment. They can be confined to their rooms for short periods — generally a maximum of four hours — only if there is a risk of physical harm to others. Pepper spray will be banned and handcuffs will be allowed only in limited circumstances.
On July 10, 2017, the federal judge in Wisconsin issued a preliminary injunction order that banned solitary confinement for minor or non-violent offenses and significantly limited solitary for youth with mental health conditions. The injunction also reduced the maximum allowable period of solitary confinement and required the two facilities to provide youth in solitary with education, rehabilitative programming, health services, and meaningful time out of their cells. The Wisconsin court joined the Northern District of New York as the second recent U.S. District Court to make this finding. On September 15, 2017, the federal court granted class certification, which strengthened the case for JLC and the ACLU.
On June 1, 2018, the State of Wisconsin agreed to settle the lawsuit. As part of the settlement, the state agrees to certain key terms: fully eliminating punitive solitary confinement within 10 months, fully eliminating the use of pepper spray within 12 months, strictly limiting the use of all forms of mechanical restraints, and prohibiting strip searches without individualized probable cause. All staff at the facilities will receive de-escalation training by a nationally recognized provider and the facilities will receive regular independent monitoring.
The suit, J.J. v. Litscher, was filed on behalf of youth confined in the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities, which have been under investigation by federal and state officials since late 2015. Despite changes in leadership, the facilities still reportedly subjects kids to solitary confinement, mechanical restraints, and pepper spray. According to the complaint, 15 to 20% percent the residents are confined in 7×10 foot solitary confinement cells for 22 or 23 hours per day. Youth are handcuffed to a table during the one hour per day they are allowed outside of their cells. The ACLU and JLC argued that the practices at the Wisconsin facilities violate children’s constitutional rights and must be stopped. Links to the complaint and preliminary injunction are included below. According to records filed in June 2017 as part of the lawsuit, “nearly 30 juvenile inmates were placed in solitary confinement on average each day last month” in the Wisconsin facilities. That is more than 16% of the population. During a hearing on June 22, 2017, expert Vincent Schiraldi testified that solitary wasn’t necessary to keep youth facilities safe. Even the superintendent of the facilities agreed during the same hearing that the facilities overuse solitary confinement, pepper spray, and shackles.
LEGAL DOCUMENTS IN THE CASE