MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin prison officials defended the use of solitary confinement at the state's troubled youth prison, telling a legislative committee Tuesday that the facility is trying to minimize the practice but it's needed to bolster safety and security.
Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher told the state Assembly's Corrections Committee during a hearing that an average of 17 percent of the prison's population is in solitary at once, but eliminating the practice wouldn't be appropriate.
"Short stays ... are part of what I call a safe and secure environment," Litscher said. "But they are there for a reason."
Pressed by Rep. Joel Kleefisch on how long children typically remain in solitary, Shelby McCulley, deputy administrator of DOC's Juvenile Corrections division, said stays can range from a few hours to several weeks if an inmate commits another offense while in solitary. She also stressed that the children who end up in solitary are typically the most aggressive inmates.
"Hearing that a child could be in (solitary confinement) for up to a week or two weeks gives me great concerns," said Kleefisch, a Republican from Oconomowoc.
The FBI is currently investigating allegations of widespread inmate abuse at the prison, which lies in the woods outside Irma in northern Wisconsin. Current and former inmates have filed a pair of federal lawsuits challenging conditions at the facility. One lawsuit alleges guards there use solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spray far too often for minor violations. The other alleges guards didn't do enough to stop a former inmate's attempt to hang herself in her cell. Both suits are pending.
The Corrections Committee convened Tuesday's hearing to help new members gather information about DOC heading into the new legislative session. The committee wasn't scheduled to take any action. Still, members grilled Litscher and McCulley on the youth prison for two hours.
Litscher told the committee that problems at the facility began years before he took over as secretary early last year. He said the facility has implemented new policies under his watch, including specialized training for youth guards, body cameras for guards, expanded psychological services for inmates and a push to minimize solitary confinement, restraints and pepper spray use.
"I didn't say eliminated," Litscher said. "I said minimized. There are going to be some incidents where you have to get involved with youth because of the nature of what might happen. To eliminate (those practices) wouldn't be appropriate."
Kleefisch said it's difficult for lawmakers to keep an eye on the prison because it's so remote.
"We don't want the juvenile correctional facilities to become springboards for adult prison," he said. "The concerns that I hear ... give me great pause and concern these children aren't being groomed for a life in society."
McCulley said inmates in solitary are released from their cells for several hours for education and recreation. One of the lawsuits alleged inmates are chained to their desks during their out time; neither Litscher nor McCulley was asked about that claim.
Rep. Bob Gannon, a Republican from West Bend, one of the most conservative areas of the state, said children who end up in solitary have "earned the opportunity" with severe behavior. He suggested prosecuting them as adults.