Wisconsin is in settlement talks with juvenile inmates who’d been incarcerated at two juvenile detention facilities.
Governor Scott Walker ordered the Lincoln Hill School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls closed, months after a judge demanded that abuse at both institutes be ended. Detainees were helped in taking legal action by the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who together sued state officials over inhumane conditions last year.
“In light of this development, the parties submit this report to inform the court that, at this juncture, the parties are continuing to actively negotiate a potential settlement and still intend to proceed with this case,” wrote lawyers for both sides in a court document filed Friday.
Over the summer, U.S. Judge James Peterson ordered changes at both facilities after concluding that inmates had likely had their civil rights violated. Among the allegations stacked up against Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake were charges that staff used pepper spray carelessly and tossed children into long-term solitary confinement for petty – and often imagined – reasons.
The prisons had been under investigation for three years. Last month, writes the Journal-Sentinel Online, federal prosecutors informed two guards that they could be held liable for breaking a 16-year old inmates arm – and then leaving him naked in a cell, all without providing or offering proper medical attention.
In July of 2017, ACLU attorneys painted a dismal picture of conditions for the mostly-teenage inmates. Children were grabbed and tackled, while chemicals and long-term, isolated lockups were utilized as arbitrary punishments.
“The way we, Wisconsin, are treating these children is not just illegal, not just wrong, it is immoral,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU in Wisconsin.
And according to Dupuis and the American Civil Liberties Union, Peterson’s order to effect change hadn’t made any difference in living conditions for the inmates. Not a single, meaningful policy was implemented, redacted, or reversed following the decision, despite claims by the facility otherwise.
Some detainees were purportedly confined to 7-foot-by-10-foot cells for months on end, only being released for an hour or two each day. On the rare occasions they were allowed to leave their quarters, they’d either be chained to a desk or held in a restraining belt by facility staff.
Walker says he’d like to close both facilities before converting them into a proper prison for adults. As part of an $80 million plan, the state would open another five teen detention centers across Wisconsin, as well as a mental health facility for incarcerated girls.
If a settlement isn’t reached, then a trial will be slated to begin November, mere weeks after Walker’s name appears for re-election on ballot slips.