Wisconsin Litigation – Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake

Wisconsin Keeps Kids in Solitary Confinement – Federal Judge Agrees Practice Is Unconstitutional, Issues Injunction & Orders Changes (2017-)

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 July 10, 2017, a 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.  In a ruling on June 23, 2017, the judge stated that the facilities’ use of solitary violated youth’s constitutional rights and caused “acute, immediate, and enduring harm” to young people. 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 strengthens the case for JLC and the ACLU.

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 regularly 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 argue 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.

For more information on the litigation, contact the Juvenile Law Center or the ACLU of Wisconsin.

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