By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Conditions at Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison have improved but it’s still grappling with staff shortages, dirty cells and overuse of pepper spray, according to a report filed in federal court Monday.
Since January, Teresa Abreu, an attorney and prison consultant, has been monitoring Lincoln Hills School for male offenders and Copper Lake School for female offenders. She was appointed after the state settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center, alleging conditions at the prison were so deplorable that they amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Her first report in January found guards at the prison were still using pepper spray on inmates and keeping them in solitary confinement too long in defiance of a court order. The order mandated a reduction in the use of pepper spray and barred room confinement to no more than seven days.
Her second report in April found improvements had been made but the practices continued.
Abreu’s most recent report noted that most prison staff engaged with inmates, particularly teachers working with youth in the prison’s classrooms. The prison’s school displayed artwork and the names of inmates who were on an honor roll. Flag-football tournaments were going on and volunteers in the foster grandparents program were on hand, Abreu wrote.
But she also noted that the prison continues to struggle with a staff shortage. The vacancy rate for guards was nearly 24% on May 31. The teacher vacancy rate was 43%.
The inmates’ cells and bathrooms remain dirty, Abreu wrote, noting there are leaky faucets and non-functioning toilets. Some placed remained marred by graffiti. No cells have been made suicide-proof, despite a court order calling for that step to be taken, she said.
The use of pepper spray has declined; the report noted 10 instances in May and eight in April, down from 14 in May 2018 and 20 in April 2018. But guards often threaten inmates with the spray and use it too often when they could have used other means to control a situation.
“It is clear that staff do not have the skills to de-escalate or restrain youth,” she wrote.
She also said there was little to no documentation of instances when children were placed in shackles or how long they’re confined to their cells.
Guards are still strip-searching inmates and placing them in solitary confinement, even if the inmates don’t pose a physical threat, although nothing suggests they’re being held longer than 24 hours, the report said.
In response to the report, prison officials argued conditions have improved at the prison just outside Irma in northern Wisconsin. They said they’re working to provide more inmate programming and suicide-proof cells. They expect to eliminate the use of pepper spray by September.
Last year, legislators overwhelmingly passed a law forcing DOC to close the prison by Jan. 1, 2021, and house offenders in new regional centers. Gov. Tony Evers has said that schedule is too aggressive and the replacements can’t be ready by 2021. The governor signed a bill Friday that extends the closing deadline to July 1, 2021, but has said he doesn’t believe the replacements will be ready by then.