MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Scott Walker’s administration told a federal court it has made progress in meeting a judge’s order to make broad changes in Wisconsin’s youth prisons, but it was impossible to immediately comply because of “significant unrest” at the facilities.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson ordered the state Department of Corrections in June to curtail the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and shackles on juveniles at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake prisons. Peterson ruled then that the harm caused to juvenile inmates likely amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

In an update filed in court Tuesday, a state attorney and lawyers for groups representing inmates disagreed sharply over how much progress has been made.

Larry Dupuis, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, wrote that the state continues to violate the Constitution and was not in full compliance with the earlier order. However, he did not ask the court to take any additional action beyond continuing to enforce the earlier order.

The use of pepper spray at the prisons has actually risen since June, when it was deployed only 10 times. The court filing shows it was used 27 times in July and 36 times in August. Inmates have been rotated between different types of confinement, exposing them to the “same intolerable conditions entailed in punitive solitary confinement,” Dupuis wrote.

Unrest at the prison made it dangerous for both staff and non-disruptive inmates to immediately comply, the state’s attorney Benjamin Sparks wrote. The unrest included heightened instances of physical and verbal abuse by inmates and more youth refusing to follow or comply with orders, he said.

Sparks said disruptive inmates cited the court’s order as a reason for refusing to comply with guards. He said that “exceptional” circumstances led to three inmates being held in isolation for extended periods.

Also this week, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that leaders of an internal affairs unit in the Department of Corrections said changes into what they investigate were ordered because they had done too good a job exposing problems at the juvenile prisons.

A Corrections Department official disagreed, saying the decision to close the unit was unrelated to the internal investigation into the two prisons.

The department’s Office of Special Operations review in 2014 of the juvenile prisons uncovered extensive problems that grew into a criminal investigation that has been ongoing for nearly three years.


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