Gretchen Schuldt

2,030 Strip Searches at Youth Prisons

Just 32 of searches in one year at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake found contraband.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Jun 7th, 2017 11:25 am
Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Just 32 of 2,030 strip searches of youths at the the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile state prisons resulted in the discovery of contraband, according to documents filed in a federal court lawsuit.

The searches were conducted over a year, from May 1, 2016 through April 30, 2017.

“Thus the ‘hit rate’ for finding contraband in these searches was 1.6%,” American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin attorney Laurence J. Dupuis said in a declaration filed in the organization’s class action lawsuit over conditions at the school.

None of the seized contraband included weapons such as guns or knives, Dupuis said, though in one instance, a piece of glass or plastic was found.

“The rest of the (contraband) objects were common, everyday objects, such as notes, candy, fruit snacks, photos, socks, watches, playing cards, pens or pencils,” he wrote. “The items listed might all have been found without strip searches. Indeed, any of the items – such as a basketball, a photo album and ‘candy in the mouth’ – could not have been hidden in a child’s undergarments.”

DOC policy helps ensure a continuous stream of strip searches as it makes all youths “who have been outside of the facility perimeter, have contact with non-official visitors or are transported to a security unit” subject to a strip search.

The ACLU reviewed a year’s worth of strip search log to verify the low contraband percentage.

The ‘hit rate’ for finding contraband was 1.6%.

The civil rights organization, along with the Juvenile Law Center and with pro-bono assistance from Quarles & Brady, is suing on behalf of past and current inmates of the two facilities alleging the extreme disciplinary practices at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake violate the inmates’ constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and cruel and unusual punishment. The suit alleges the institutions make routine use of strip searches, chemical sprays, solitary confinement and mechanical restraints.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson.

Lawyers for defendants in the case, meanwhile, argued in a separate document that a court-ordered limit on the the use of pepper spray, solitary confinement, and mechanical restraints could actually hurt efforts by state and school officials to cut back on those things.

“The imposition of best practices should not be court-ordered, but instead continually evaluated and implemented by the staff and administrators most familiar with the institutions,” attorneys Samuel C. Hall, Jr. and Benjamin A. Sparks wrote in a brief. The two are with the Crivello Carlson law firm.

The ACLU is requesting a preliminary injunction temporarily banning the use of solitary confinement “for disciplinary or punitive purposes” at the two youth prisons.

The ACLU also is asking the court to eliminate the routine use of mechanical restraints and the use of pepper spray for punishment and behavior management or control.  The request includes exceptions to the prohibitions to prevent imminent and serious harm to people.

In their filing, Hall and Sparks said that discussions already are underway to provide more out-of-room time to youth in solitary confinement. Officials also are weighing how to provide more inidvidualized treatment to youths who need it.

“A preliminary injunction will divert attention from these efforts, ultimately slowing LHS and CLS’s  progress while simultaneously changing how the institutions maintain safe and secure correctional institutions,” they wrote.

There is no policy requiring that youth in solitary confinement be locked in their rooms for at least 22 to 23 hours per day and that youth are not locked in their rooms for 23 or 24 hours per day, they said.

They also argued that pepper spray, mechanical restraints and solitary confinement are used to address rules violations by youths and, essentially, that those who do not violate rules have nothing to worry about.

“Indeed, if no named Plaintiff commits any conduct rule violation throughout this litigation, a preliminary injunction would leave them no better or worse off,” Hall and Sparks wrote.

The filing does not address the allegation that pepper spray spread and affected youth who were not its intended targets.

Granting the injunction would “lead to absurd limits on LHS and CLS staffs’ abilities to maintain safe and secure institutions,” the defendants argued.

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation.”

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