Teens sue Wisconsin over nightmare conditions in juvenile jails

Officials sprayed teens as young as 14 with a pepper spray designed to fend off bears.

CREDIT: iStock
CREDIT: iStock

Teenagers at Wisconsin’s Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls sued the state this week, alleging conditions at the juvenile detention centers violate their constitutional rights.

The class action lawsuit claims the state holds inmates as young as 14 in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, in seven by ten-foot cells, for months at a time. “The segregation cells are dirty and smell like sweat and urine,” according to the lawsuit. The United Nations considers solitary confinement for longer than 15 days a form of torture and has called for a complete ban on its use on children and teenagers.

The jails also routinely chain the teenage inmates to tables, chain their wrists to their belts, and spray them with “Bear Mace” — a spray designed to protect hikers from bear attacks and which causes days-long episodes of blindness in humans. Guards used this and other forms of pepper spray nearly 200 times over 10 months.

Larry Dupuis, the legal director of ACLU of Wisconsin, witnessed one such incident firsthand when he went to the jail to investigate conditions. He told reporters he saw a boy pepper-sprayed for the minor offense of not removing his shoes when asked to by a guard.


“He was in handcuffs, wincing and limping as they brought him down the hallway toward us,” Dupuis said. “That’s when the boy we were interviewing said, ‘This happens all the time.’”

Dupuis said the facility uses the spray in a “wanton” and “excessive” manner — to punish the teenagers rather than break up fights and quell threats. He also noted that the jail forces teens to shower off after they are pepper sprayed, which causes the spray to run off of their faces and burn other parts of their bodies, including their genitals.

“I was shocked,” said Dupuis. “Usually when the ACLU shows up at a prison, they’re on their best behavior. So I’m not sure if they couldn’t control what was happening that day, or if they just thought it was okay to pepper spray a kid.”

Cruel and unusual punishment

One of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit is a 14-year-old African-American girl from Milwaukee — identified as K.D. to protect her privacy. K.D. has been placed in solitary confinement three times since July, an experience her father John Levy says has left her “traumatized.” The ACLU documented the following:

“While Defendants were holding K.D. in solitary confinement, they used so much pepper spray on another girl in solitary confinement that spray filled the corridor. The cloud of pepper spray made K.D., and, on information and belief, other girls in the wing, cough and gag, and burned their throats. Although the guards used masks to protect themselves from the impact of the spray, they offered no protection to any of the youth in that wing.”

Her mother Meranda Davis told reporters at a press conference on Friday that following this experience, “She had a nervous breakdown and tried to kill herself.”

Her father, John Levy, added: “The effect on my daughter is going to be there forever.”

Another plaintiff in the case, identified as J.J., wrote that frequent solitary confinement has caused him significant “trauma.”


“Being in solitary messes you up: you can’t sleep, you feel anxious, and the longer you are there the angrier it makes you feel,” 15-year-old J.J. said. “I mean, you try sleeping with the light on 24 hours a day, or having to distract yourself in a small, dirty, smelly space.”

Isolated from family and denied an education

Like many parents of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake inmates, Levy and Davis have to drive for hundreds of miles every time they want to visit their daughter. While the prisons are located in a small town in the far north of the state, the vast majority of their population comes from Milwaukee , 215 miles away. Working parents are unable to afford to frequently make the trek from Milwaukee.

Studies conducted by the Department of Corrections in multiple states find that regular family visits dramatically reduce inmate’s chances of re-offending after they are released. They also greatly reduce the chances a juvenile inmate will act out and break rules while incarcerated.

Milwaukee County officials have petitioned the state to open a juvenile detention facility within the city to encourage more frequent family visits and an easier transition back into society for inmates. Governor Walker refused to include funding for an alternative facility in his 2017 budget.

“The effect on my daughter is going to be there forever.”

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center say the state’s practices violate the inmates’ “rights to substantive due process, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, as guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment.”


In addition to documenting the unconstitutional torture of the teenagers, the lawsuit accuses the state of failing to educate the youth while they are incarcerated.

In the general population, the youth typically receive four to five hours of education Monday-Friday. In solitary confinement, Defendants’ pattern and practice is to reduce this educational programming to a single hour outside the cell with a teacher who comes to the segregation unit and meets with about three youth at a time. During this time, they may be locked to a desk in the classroom.

At any given time, the jail has between 15 and 20 percent of the teenagers in solitary confinement.

A previous probe of the prison found that staff was instructed to meet the required number of hours of education by showing the middle- and high-school-aged students Hollywood movies.

An ignored crisis festers

Soon after taking office in 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) shut down youth prisons in the southern part of the state, doubling the population at the understaffed Lincoln Hills in the north. The governor also stripped collective bargaining rights from federal employees, including prison guards, which decreased their pay and gave them less of a voice in the workplace.

Since then, local reporters have uncovered through public records requests that prison officials broke the arms and crushed the toes of young inmates, delayed and denied medical care to victims of sexual and physical assault, and destroyed video evidence and paper records that documented the abuse and neglect. Prisoners’ suicide attempts became routine, yet the superintendent and deputy superintendent who ran the prison were promoted. The prison’s chief psychologist stayed on the job for more than a year despite reports that he sexually harassed both female inmates and his female interns.

The exposed abuses were so egregious that the Milwaukee County Board unanimously voted to ask local judges to stop sentencing juvenile offenders to serve time at Lincoln Hills.

“My colleagues are asked to remove children from homes, parental homes, that are being investigated for abuse and neglect,” said Children’s Court Judge Mary Triggiano, who manages delinquency services for Milwaukee County. “In the same breath, we are being asked to send kids to a place being investigated for abuse and neglect.”

Walker, who in six years in office has never visited Lincoln Hills, has said he did not learn about problems there until the FBI began investigating in 2015. Yet a county judge wrote him directly in 2012 describing an incident in which one inmate forced another to perform oral sex and then beat him unconscious. The prison staff waited three hours to take the victim to the emergency room, and even longer to report the assault to authorities. The prison then punished the victim, putting him in solitary confinement for “disruptive behavior.”

“The indifference in this sordid tale is absolutely inexcusable,” Judge Richard Kreul wrote to the governor. He never received a response.

Finally, in 2016, Walker ordered the replacement of some senior officials, the hiring of dozens of new guards, the installation of more surveillance cameras, and the implementation of a more rigorous training program.

The new ACLU lawsuit aims to force more meaningful reforms at the facilities and ensure the young inmates are given the full legal protection they are entitled to under the Constitution. The ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center have asked the District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin to appoint a monitor to report back weekly on compliance and improvements. A separate federal criminal and civil investigation is ongoing, as is a Justice Department investigation into violations of the inmates’ civil rights.

“The way we, Wisconsin, are treating these children is not just illegal, it’s immoral,” said Dupuis. “It inflicts terrible damage on the inmates, on the guards, and on our society.”