Today, Western District Judge Peterson found that the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and restraints at two juvenile facilities in Wisconsin violate youths’ constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The court ordered the parties to propose the terms of a preliminary injunction to end the inhumane conditions and practices within two weeks of today’s order.  The suit was originally filed in January on behalf of youth confined in the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls. Yesterday and today, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Juvenile Law Center, with pro-bono assistance from Quarles & Brady argued in the Western District Court that children incarcerated at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake needed immediate relief while the case was being litigated.

This a major step forward for youth in Wisconsin. The Court recognized that Wisconsin is an extreme outlier in its reliance on  pepper spray, restraints and punitive solitary confinement and that these practices are unnecessary and counterproductive.  We need to eliminate these cruel practices immediately,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Legal Director Larry Dupuis.

Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake incarcerate over 150 youth on any given day, with an average of 20% of these youth confined to solitary confinement in bare solitary confinement cells for 22 or 23 hours a day.  The staff keep many of these children in handcuffs attached to a belt around their waists, and then handcuffed to a table or desk, during the hour or two they are allowed out of their cells. Staff throughout Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake also regularly use pepper spray on the youth, causing pain and burning and impairing their breathing and health. During the hearing, the State acknowledged the severe harm that solitary confinement causes youth, and that they have pepper sprayed youth even while they are shackled or locked in their cells.

The Court’s ruling today will protect youth from harmful, degrading, and unconstitutional practices,” said Jessica Feierman, Associate Director of Juvenile Law Center. “Young people in Wisconsin – and across the country – deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not locked up and deprived of exercise, recreation, social contact, and educational programming.”

The court stated that young people have a constitutional right to rehabilitation, and it was being thwarted by these practices.  Judge Peterson said that the civil rights groups had “amply shown acute, immediate and lasting harm from use of solitary confinement,” and immediate changes needed to take place.