Attorney General Josh Kaul won’t restart juvenile prison investigation

Josh Kaul

MADISON — Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said Wednesday that he’s not going to launch a new investigation into the state’s juvenile prisons, even as a new report shows young inmates are still being pepper sprayed, shackled and held in solitary confinement despite a court order to reduce such practices.

The developments came less than a week after U.S. attorney’s office in Madison announced that a federal probe into the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons had ended after four years with no charges filed.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed alleging abuse by guards. Last year, the state agreed to pay $18.9 million under a settlement with one former juvenile inmate who suffered brain damage after she tried to hang herself in her cell.

Another lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and Juvenile Law Center led to a federal judge ordering that guards greatly reduce the use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and restraints. A court-appointed monitor issued her second report Wednesday, finding that improvements have been made but the practices continue.

There were 18 incidents involving the use of pepper spray from December through February, compared with 46 the previous three months, the report said.

“There remains a need to focus on staff de-escalation training and skills development as well as a need to improve the overall atmosphere and culture of the environment in order to reduce incidents of violence,” the independent monitor, Teresa Abreu, wrote. “Merely reducing or modifying the intervention protocols for these types of incidents is not a sufficient response.”

Abreu is an attorney and prison consultant who previously helped run a juvenile detention center in Cook County, Illinois.

She also found that prison guards continue to work 16-hour days and are not promptly responding to inmates’ calls for help, a delay that led to the inmate suffering brain damage. She reported that the use of shackles and solitary confinement is down, but still continues. Prison guards also began strip searching inmates without cause in January, the report found. A memo was sent to prison staff in March telling them to only conduct strip searches when there’s just cause.

“It’s good to see some progress, but we are concerned that (prison) staff are backsliding in use of strip searches, which can be very traumatizing for youth — many of whom have been victims of sexual abuse and other trauma,” said Karen U. Lindell, senior attorney at Juvenile Law Center. “We also need better data collection to detail what is happening in the facilities.”

The report underscores the need to remove youth from the facilities, said ACLU attorney Karyn Rotker.

The prisons are slated to close by 2021, but Gov. Tony Evers wants to keep them open while smaller, regional replacement facilities are built. Evers said Wednesday that “we need to move beyond” the investigation and focus on replacing the prisons.

Evers said he deferred to the attorney general on whether to launch a new investigation.

Kaul, during an appearance at the Milwaukee Press Club on Wednesday, said federal authorities conducted a “full and thorough investigation into the facts,” and because of that, the state Department of Justice won’t investigate.

U.S. Attorney Scott Blader said in deciding against charges that there was “insufficient evidence to prove federal criminal civil rights charges.”

Even so, Kaul said there was “no question that we need substantial reform to our juvenile corrections system here in Wisconsin.”

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