Big changes: State settles juvenile prison abuse lawsuit

Posted at 12:30 p.m. on June 1, 2018

The Brillion News

MILWAUKEE – The State of Wisconsin on Friday, June 1, agreed to settle a class action lawsuit, J.J. vs. Litscher, brought against the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons.

The juvenile plaintiffs in the case, through their attorneys, challenged practices such as solitary confinement and use of pepper spray.

They were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, the Juvenile Law Center and attorneys at Quarles & Brady who donated their services “pro bono,” or “for a good cause.”

The settlement, pending court approval, comes a few months after the State of Wisconsin passed legislation to close the controversial facilities by 2021.

The settlement is subject to final approval of the court. Key terms of the settlement include the following agreements:

  1. Punitive solitary confinement will phase out and will be fully eliminated within 10 months of court approval of the settlement.

  2. All other forms of solitary confinement will be strictly limited.

  3. The use of pepper spray will be phased out and will be fully eliminated within 12 months of court approval.

  4. All forms of mechanical restraints, such as belly chains or handcuffs, will be strictly limited, and youth will not be cuffed to fixed objects like tables.  Their use will be the exception, not the rule.

  5. No strip searches will be conducted without individualized probable cause.

  6. Within three months of court approval of the settlement, all facility staff will receive de-escalation training by a nationally recognized provider.

  7. A profession, independent monitor – an individual with expertise in juvenile corrections – will visit the prisons, interview youth, and review records to ensure that Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake follow the terms of the settlement.

“While biggest step forward for youth is the closure of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, today’s settlement is also an important win,” said Jessica Feierman, Associate Director of Juvenile Law Center. “The agreement establishes crucial safeguards against the harms of solitary confinement, restraints, pepper spray, and strip searches.”

“We are continuing to move ahead with reforms to Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system, including the development and construction of new Type 1 juvenile correctional facilities, partnerships with counties to develop secure residential care centers for children and youth, and the conversion of Copper Lake School/Lincoln Hills School to an adult correctional facility,” said state Corrections Secretary Jon  Litscher.

“This is a major step in the right direction for Wisconsin and the protection of children in the custody of the state,” said Timothy Muth staff attorney of ACLU of Wisconsin. “We hope this settlement and the closure of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake signals a larger shift in Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system toward an approach that recognizes the unique needs and vulnerabilities of youth and respects their constitutional rights.  We’ll need to remain vigilant to ensure that shift comes to fruition.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin is a non-profit, non-partisan, private organization whose 24,000 members support its efforts to defend the civil rights and liberties of all Wisconsin residents.

Juvenile Law Center advocates for rights, dignity, equity and opportunity for youth in the foster care and justice systems.

Quarles & Brady is a large private law firm with a nationwide practice, including offices on Milwaukee and Madison.

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