MADISON, Wis. — Recent reports of violent clashes between juvenile inmates and prison workers are overblown, and an order to reduce the use of pepper spray and solitary confinement should not be changed, attorneys argued in filings made in federal court Friday.
The arguments from attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and Juvenile Law Center came after U.S. District Judge James Peterson asked for an update on conditions at the prisons. Responding to a lawsuit filed by the groups, Peterson in July ordered the state to drastically reduce its use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and shackles on inmates, saying they amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
Two Republican lawmakers urged him to reverse that order last month, providing him with emails from workers describing violent clashes.
Lawyers representing the ACLU of Wisconsin and the center countered in a separate filing, arguing that any link between the court's order and reports of violence are unsubstantiated. They urged the judge not to alter his order and said the appropriate response would be to ensure adequate staffing, programming, treatment, security policies and supervision. They cite data showing no increase in attacks injuring staff since the court's order.
An attorney for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said in a filing Friday that while progress is being made, a "very small percentage" of inmates are making it difficult to fully implement the order. Attorney Sam Hall said the transition from a "deterrent-based" institution to a "positive-reinforcement-based" one may have been too quick.
Hall said staff members have "fewer tools" to respond to the small percentage of inmates who can't be dealt with by using only positive reinforcement. He cited three recent examples.
The first incident occurred 12 days after the order was issued, when three inmates attempted to escape. One of them broke the window of a staff van, stole a canister of pepper spray and deployed it on staff before being captured. Another inmate who was captured told staff, "it's on and it's going to keep happening."
Then in August, inmates climbed the roof of their housing unit. They suggested that was only one of a series of concerted, pre-meditated acts intended to harm staff and disrupt the prison, Hall said. As a third example of unrest, Hall recounted the case of a teacher who was punched and knocked unconscious by an inmate last month.
Hall said the department is developing a program to address those trouble makers that will focus on inmates who display aggressive, assaulting behavior and who may otherwise be regularly put into solitary confinement.
Those programs will be discussed in coming weeks with attorneys who filed the class-action lawsuit, Hall said.
The Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Wausau in Irma, house about 160 boys and girls. The prisons have been under a federal investigation into prisoner mistreatment for nearly three years. Multiple lawsuits alleging that inmates' rights have been violated are pending.