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State agrees to end pepper spray, solitary at youth prison (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin prison officials reached a legal settlement Friday that calls for broad changes at the state’s troubled youth prison, including banning guards from using pepper spray, ending solitary confinement for rule-breakers and limiting mechanical restraints and strip searches.

The agreement needs approval from a judge but is aimed at ending a federal lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. The lawsuit alleges the facility’s guards have long abused inmates. The state would pay the groups’ attorney fees and costs, which the ACLU pegs at $1 million.

Gov. Scott Walker has signed a bill to close the prison by 2021 and replace it with smaller regional prisons. Friday’s settlement calls for the Department of Corrections to work toward amending its regulations to apply the same restrictions established in the agreement to all state juvenile facilities.

“We hope this settlement and the closure of (the prison) 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,” ACLU attorney Timothy Muth said in a news release.

DOC Secretary Jon Litscher issued his own news release saying the agreement “will maintain options which allow us to safely manage youth.”

Word broke in 2015 that the state Department of Justice had been investigating allegations of widespread abuse at the prison. Agency Secretary Ed Wall resigned in February 2016 after the FBI took over the investigation. That probe is still ongoing.

The DOC in March reached an $18.9 million settlement with one former juvenile inmate who suffered brain damage after she tried to hang herself in her cell. The girl alleged that staff ignored signs that she was contemplating suicide and didn’t respond to her cell call light when she activated it before the suicide attempt.

The ACLU, the Juvenile Law Center and the Quarles and Brady law firm brought a separate lawsuit in January 2017 on behalf of four inmates seeking improvements at the prison, including limits on the use of pepper spray solitary confinement and mechanical restraints.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson ordered the DOC last June to curtail the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and shackles. The ACLU argued later that year that the use of pepper spray increased following the order and inmates were rotated between different types of confinement, exposing them to the “same intolerable conditions entailed in punitive solitary confinement.”

The settlement still needs Peterson’s approval. It’s unclear when he may consider it.

Under the agreement, guards would be prohibited from using pepper spray beginning a year after approval. The number of days inmates could be confined to solitary confinement for rules violations would also be pared down — from seven to three to none — within 10 months of the settlement taking effect. Inmates could still be placed in solitary if they pose a risk to others but beginning six months after settlement approval they couldn’t be held for more than 12 hours.

Mechanical restraints would be limited to handcuffs, which could be used only by specifically trained staff and if those staffers felt the cuffs were the least restrictive way to handle an inmate who might harm someone. Staff would have to remove the cuffs when the threat lessens or ends. Inmates also couldn’t be restrained to a fixed object, such as a wall or desk, unless it’s necessary to protect the inmate.

Staff wouldn’t be allowed to strip search inmates without probable cause indicating the inmate has drugs or weapons that can’t be detected by less intrusive means. A metal detector or pat-down would need to precede a strip search, which could only be done by a guard of the same gender identity as the inmate. The search couldn’t be recorded on video or take place in the presence of another youth.

The DOC would have to work to change its administrative rules so the limitations and restrictions in the settlement would apply across all the agency’s juvenile facilities. And a monitor would visit the prison multiple times and report on compliance.

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