Judge Rules on Lincoln Hills Use of Pepper Spray, Solitary

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Premiere Date: 
July 14, 2017

Judge Rules on Lincoln Hills Use of Pepper Spray, Solitary

Juveniles at the Lincoln Hills Correctional Facility can expect fewer days in solitary confinement and less pepper spray in the future. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections says it will not appeal a federal judge's ruling on prisoner treatment. We speak with Patrick Marley, reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, about the remaining lawsuits and federal investigations of Lincoln Hills.

Episode Transcript

Zac Schultz:

Juveniles at the Lincoln Hills correctional facility can expect fewer days in solitary confinement and less pepper spray in the future. In tonight's closer look, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections says it will not appeal a federal judge's ruling that said workers showed "Callous indifference to the harm being inflicted on juvenile prisoners." But this isn't the end of the story. Earlier this week we spoke to Patrick Marley, reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, about the remaining lawsuits and investigations still pending at Lincoln Hills. It’s been three weeks since a federal judge ruled the Department of Corrections and the ACLU, they need to agree on a plan to reduce the use of pepper spray and confined spaces. What have we seen so far?

Patrick Marley:

Since then they have put together a plan and the judge has ruled on it. The two sides couldn't agree on all the details, so the judge came in and said they need to reduce the amount of time kids are put in solitary confinement for punishment to seven days. The maximum currently is 60 days. So it's a dramatic drop in how much time. And then when they're in there, when they're in solitary confinement, they have to be out for at least 30 hours a week for meals, education, those kinds of things. There's also a sharp reduction in how much pepper spray they can use. Now as we've seen from the videos that were released in the court hearing, kids would get sprayed for refusing to go in their room or something like that. Now they can only do it if someone's being--harming someone or there's an immediate risk that they will harm someone.

Zac Schultz:

There have been allegations of abuse and mistreatment at Lincoln Hills for a couple of years now. Has the release of the videos to the public changed the way people are approaching this?

Patrick Marley:

We’ve been reporting for a year and a half about very serious problems that have been going on for a long time at Lincoln Hills. I think the videos--there are two videos released through this court case and we obtained a video on our own of an incident that happened in 2013. I think the public being able to actually witness how things operate there with their eyes and see it for themselves has changed the way some people may perceive this. It's a little abstract when you're just reading words in a newspaper. It's a lot more real when you see people in riot gear going up to a cell door and spraying pepper spray through a slot in that door because a juvenile won't take their hands out of the door.

Zac Schultz:

And do you think people are reacting differently because these are juveniles? You can hear they're kids' voices, kids' body as opposed to just an inmate.

Patrick Marley:

Well, Wisconsin has had a long policy of trying to treat juvenile inmates differently than adult inmates. Some of these kids are in there for very serious crimes, carjacking, some of them even homicide. But the notion Wisconsin has adopted is that kids are more susceptible to rehabilitation. That there's a better chance they can turn their lives around. And it's more important we as a society do turn them around because they're going to live a lot longer than an adult inmate. So what the judge found is that many of the things that are done at Lincoln Hills are not in keeping with that policy. He hasn't made a final ruling, but they appear not to be keeping with that policy and they appear to be violating the constitutional rights of these inmates.

Zac Schultz:

And other judges are saying the same thing. County judges in southeast Wisconsin are actually sending fewer children there.

Patrick Marley:

We’ve seen a huge drop in the number of kids being sent to Lincoln Hills. Part of that appears to be of the grave concerns about how the facility has been operating.

Zac Schultz:

More than a year ago we had you on the program to update us on the different lawsuits and the federal investigation. What do we know now?

Patrick Marley:

We still don't know where this federal investigation is. The FBI's in charge of it now. It's been going on for two and a half years. First the State Department of Justice was doing it. Now the FBI is doing it. There's also a civil investigation being done by the U.S. Department of Justice. There's at least five lawsuits that I’m aware of. But really the prosecutors are very tight-lipped. We don't know if they're going to issue charges. We don't know when they're going to wrap this up and make those kind of decisions. They just won't tell us.

Zac Schultz:

Is there any possibility that the shift in Washington with the Department of Justice could alter the way this is handled?

Patrick Marley:

I talked to the former U.S. attorney about that, and he didn't think so. He thinks that the Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Justice is a professional organization that's going to continue to do what it does regardless of who the president is. We haven't seen any evidence. You know, the thing was taking a long time and was being kept from the public, which is typically how prosecutors act. So we have not detected any shift. We just don't know.

Zac Schultz:

Governor Walker also has a new secretary in the Department of Corrections. Has he made any changes?

Patrick Marley:

Yes. There was a raid on the facility in December of 2015 and the Department of Corrections made a number of changes. First, they put all new leaders in at the Department of Corrections, mostly new leaders at the prison itself. They gave a lot more training to all the staff there. They now put them through a six or seven-week training course where before it was two weeks on the job. They have equipped everybody with body cameras. They've installed more fixed cameras in the facility. The administration has touted that a lot. Those are real changes that have been made. The judge, you know, the case that the ACLU brought is really all about activities there since that raid. And the judge said there have been no concrete or substantive steps toward reducing solitary confinement, reducing the use of pepper spray. That's what this lawsuit is really focused on.

Zac Schultz:

What about the state budget that's still ongoing? Are there any changes for Lincoln Hills there?

Patrick Marley:

The state budget is totally stalled, as you know, on other issues like transportation. They have voted on the budget for the Department of Corrections and they're putting more money into mental health work. At Lincoln Hills they're formalizing a policy where only nurses and medical staff will give out medicine. Previously it had been guards who had given out medicine. And we documented some cases where teen inmates got the wrong medicine. So there are those kinds of changes. But they are not making really substantive changes to the way the place operates those in the prison reform community have wanted. The opponents of this place want to shut it down and have it move to regional centers. That would be very expensive and lawmakers have not shown interest in that so far.

Zac Schultz:

Is there any sense that this is going to become political as we approach the next gubernatorial election?

Patrick Marley:

Some Democrats have criticized Governor Walker because he's never visited Lincoln Hills. When I asked him about it, he said he didn't see a need to go there because he believes he's putting staff who are going to be responsive and responsible for running it. And he said that he didn't think -- he didn't think when a politician visits a prison they get a real look at what the prison is like. That you just see what they want you to see. Some Democrats have been very critical of that saying he should be up there making it more of a priority. Who's to say in the next year how much of a political issue people try to make it.

Zac Schultz:

We just found out that they’re going to invite media members to possibly tour some facilities.

Patrick Marley:

Yes. We had an opportunity to visit Lincoln Hills back in December, a pretty good tour of getting to see both the--they stay in cottages. They're spread around on campus. Seeing the ordinary cottages as well as the secure, solitary confinement wing, the school itself that's on the grounds. Now they're talking about doing similar tours of adult prisons, the state's womens prison. So we'll be looking forward to seeing what that's like.

Zac Schultz:

Patrick Marley, thanks for the update.

Patrick Marley:

Thanks.

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