Bipartisan Legislation Introduced to Close Lincoln Hills by 2021 (Feb. 2018)
On February 21, 2018, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed bipartisan legislation to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, two youth correctional facilities by 2021. The bill would close the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison by 2021 and authorize $80 million to create new state and county youth facilities. Since in 2015, Lincoln Hills has been the subject of federal and state investigations and a class action lawsuit filed by Juvenile Law Center (JLC) and ACLU of Wisconsin, with pro-bono assistance from Quarles & Brady. The suit successfully resulted in a preliminary injunction in June 2017 designed to end the overuse of solitary confinement and pepper spray.
Under the bipartisan proposal, the most serious offenders would go to new state-run facilities and both Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities would close. Counties would oversee the rest of the offenders at local residential care centers built and run mostly with state money. A different plan introduced by the Governor in January 2018 (see below) would close the two facilities in northern Wisconsin and create several smaller facilities located around the state. Beginning in 2015, Lincoln Hills has been the subject of federal and state investigations and a class action lawsuit filed by Juvenile Law Center (JLC) and ACLU of Wisconsin, with pro-bono assistance from Quarles & Brady. The suit successfully resulted in a preliminary injunction in June 2017 designed to end the overuse of solitary confinement and pepper spray. Plaintiffs in the litigation warn that proposed legislative fixes don’t address the over-incarceration of youth and could result in the same dangerous conditions.
Governor Announces Plans to Close Lincoln Hills and Cooper Lake Facilities (Jan. 2018)
After a federal investigation, media scrutiny, and a civil rights lawsuit over the use of solitary confinement and pepper spray on youth at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth facilities, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced plans to close the facilities on January 4, 2018. Federal rulings in the litigation had already forced the Department of Corrections to limit the use of abusive practices (read below). The Governor’s announcement is part of a plan open five smaller regional prisons for youth in 2019. The Governor’s announcement does not affect current operations at the two facilities where hundreds of youth remain. On January 16, 2018, the Governor’s Office issued a press release calling for bipartisan reform of Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system.
Wisconsin Senator Proposes Study on Alternatives to Solitary (Sept. 2017)
The proposal from Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison) would require the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to prepare, within one year, a report for the legislature on alternatives to solitary confinement. Senator Risser circulated the bill in September for co-sponsorship.
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 now joins 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.
In April 2017, JLC and the ACLU of Wisconsin filed a motion seeking injunctive relief and an amended complaint in their case. Read the ACLU’s press release here. 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.