By Christopher Zoukis
While I’ve previously written about the problem of the severe overcrowding in Wisconsin’s prisons, but we shouldn’t overlook the serious issues in that state’s juvenile corrections facilities. The state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recently made an eye-opening attempt to quantify the size of the problems at the main centralized juvenile facilities, Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, north of Wausau.
Overcrowding is a problem for Wisconsin’s adult prisons, but not for the Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake campus, which houses about 145 males between the ages of 13 and 25 (some adults are confined there for their juvenile offenses) and about 20 girls, in facilities designed to accommodate 500. Most are African-American from the Milwaukee area, over 200 miles south of the Northwoods juvenile facilities. The young inmates have generally been convicted of serious crimes of violence or failed to adjust after being sent to group homes after repeat offenses.
Conditions at the juvenile facilities have been so bad for so long – they’ve been under criminal probes of abuse and neglect for over three years – that Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the legislature in March passed an $80 million project to build or refurbish five regional facilities spread across the state and transfer Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake inmates by 2021.
When the newspaper tallied up the cost to the state and its taxpayers of lawsuits brought against the juvenile facilities for current and former inmates, it found settlements and legal fees have already cost taxpayers $20.6 million.
The bulk of that amount comes from a settlement made in March 2018 from a 2015 incident involving Sydni Briggs, a 16-year-old Copper Lake inmate, who after voicing suicidal thoughts, was put on suicide watch requiring guards to check her cell every 15 minutes and as soon as she turned on her cell’s call light. Despite that, she was left unattended for 42 minutes, including 23 minutes after turning on the call light. During that time, the troubled teen hanged herself; she was revived, but left with severe brain damage, requiring constant medical care. After protracted litigation, the state paid $4 million of the eventual settlement of about $19 million (insurance covering the balance). The state’s legal costs from the case also exceeded $100,000.
In August the state agreed to pay $885,000 for a settlement, approved by the court on September 13, 2018, of a case brought last year by the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and another group over conditions at the juvenile facilities, including months-long use of solitary confinement and regular use of pepper spray to control young inmates. State legal costs from the case added $320,000 to the taxpayer’s financial burden.
In 2016, the state paid $300,000 to a former Lincoln Hills resident who refused to enter the solitary confinement cell, threatened the guards and then was shoved into the cell. Subsequently, the guard slammed the metal door onto the 16-year-old inmate’s foot so hard that it required partial amputation of two toes and repeated surgeries.
Of course, since other neglect and abuse cases have been filed or could be in the future, state costs could rise further from the slated-to-be-closed juvenile facilities.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.