End Solitary Confinement, Especially of Youth
State continues using isolation, including at Lincoln Hills for Boys, without transparency about practices.
As Jon Litscher prepares to take the reins as Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections amid revelations about the abuse of children at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile correctional facilities, the ACLU of Wisconsin repeats its call for independent oversight and reform of the Department’s use of solitary confinement, particularly of juveniles. The ACLU also supports Milwaukee County’s efforts to bring young prisoners back to their home communities, but only if they can be appropriately housed and cared for locally.
Recent developments have brought momentum to the cause of curtailing solitary confinement and the “terrible price” it exacts on prisoners. In a concurring opinion in June 2015, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy complained that “the conditions in which prisoners have been kept simply has not been a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest.” He observed that “near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” and invited a legal challenge to long-term solitary confinement. In late 2015, a group of leaders of state correctional systems, including former Wisconsin DOC secretary Rick Raemisch, and advocates for prisoners made recommendations to end the over-use of isolation in prisons. The recommendations included ensuring that vulnerable populations, including juveniles, be confined in isolated settings only when no alternative exists and then only for a maximum of 15 days. In January 2016, President Obama prohibited solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons and adopted other recommendations to limit the use of restrictive housing. These developments coincide with the United Nation’s adoption of the “Nelson Mandela Rules” for the treatment of prisoners, which recognize solitary’s “devastating effect on physical and mental health” and restrict its use to no more than 15 days.
In 2012, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch issued a report, “Growing Up Locked Down,” which documented the severe harm solitary confinement causes young people. The report noted that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections refused to allow interviews of children in its custody, and the ACLU called upon “Wisconsin prison and jail officials . . . to be more transparent about how they use solitary confinement on kids.”
In November 2015, the ACLU joined other advocates in calling upon the Department to contract with an independent entity, such as the National Institute of Corrections, to evaluate its solitary practices and policies, report its findings to the public and make recommendations for future improvements.
While the Department under outgoing Secretary Ed Wall made some progress toward reducing the use of solitary confinement, it did not respond to calls for greater oversight and transparency. The DOC’s general lack of transparency with regard to solitary and particularly the isolation of the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lakes facilities from prisoners’ families raise serious concerns about the extent to which juveniles may have been subjected to solitary. Secretary Litscher should seize the opportunity of his appointment to eliminate solitary confinement of juveniles, radically reduce its use among all prisoners, and submit to independent oversight.
By Laurence J. Dupuis, Legal Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin
- MKE County: County Wants Zero Youth in State Juvenile Prisons - Graham Kilmer - May 26th, 2021
- Report Finds Improvements in Youth Prisons - Isiah Holmes - Apr 21st, 2021
- New Therapy Used at Lincoln Hills - Rob Mentzer - Apr 20th, 2021
- Evers Proposes $45.8 Million for Milwaukee Juvenile Facility - Gretchen Schuldt - Mar 1st, 2021
- MKE County: County Has Just 22 Inmates in Youth Prisons - Edgar Mendez - Feb 24th, 2021
- Evers Pushes Juvenile Justice System Changes - Corri Hess - Feb 18th, 2021
- Youth Justice Milwaukee Calls for Transformation of the Wisconsin Youth Justice System as the State Acknowledges it Will Not Meet the July 2021 Deadline to Close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Prisons - Youth Justice Milwaukee - Feb 8th, 2021
- Pandemic Causes Youth Prison Problems - Graham Kilmer - Jan 27th, 2021
- Can State Rescue Youth Corrections Plan? - Graham Kilmer - Jan 11th, 2021
- State Can’t Meet Deadline to Close Youth Prisons - Graham Kilmer - Dec 30th, 2020
Read more about Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake here