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Wisconsin's Guantanamo Bay for Kids

Jan. 31, 2017
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Nobody paid much attention a month ago when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker visited the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, which President Donald Trump has sick, twisted dreams of restoring as a “black site” of torture and abuse.

Walker already is responsible for two of the nation’s most horrific prisons, where inmates are regularly sexually assaulted, suffer broken bones and amputations from violent guard attacks, spend months in torturous solitary confinement for minor infractions and repeatedly get drenched in blistering pepper spray intended for wild animals. 

If that sounds like an overstatement, it’s not. It’s even more cruel because the prisons aren’t for adults. They’re Wisconsin’s prisons for children, Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls.

Walker created the facilities in 2011 out of sight and out of mind in a remote Northwoods location, after closing Ethan Allen School for Boys and Southern Oaks Girls School in Waukesha and Racine counties, respectively.

The primary motive was to cut spending. The disadvantage, perhaps intentional, was moving mostly minority urban youth three and a half hours away from any family support or oversight.

The isolated location also assured a mostly white staff with very little training or real-life experience with black and brown kids from Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. 

For two years, we had some hope of federal action against Walker and the state for failing to correct horrific abuses first reported in 2012 to the governor’s office by a Racine County judge who refused to send any more children there. 

In 2015, state and federal agents raided the prisons to seize records and the FBI and Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department started a criminal investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse of children, negligence by officials and destruction of public records.

But, of course, all bets are off now that those agencies are under the control of a president who openly advocates torturing prisoners and violating constitutional rights.

Walker traveled 90 miles off the coast of Florida to visit a prison where U.S. waterboarding and other torture are now outlawed, but he’s never bothered to visit his own youth prisons, where reports are rampant of similar violent, inhumane and illegal treatment endangering the lives of Wisconsin children. 


Suicide Attempts, Solitary Confinement, Pepper Spray

When citizens can’t depend upon their state or federal governments to protect children from assault, they turn to the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, just as concerned citizens nationally are hoping the ACLU can stop Trump’s unconstitutional ban on Muslims entering the country.

The state ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia filed a federal lawsuit in Madison on behalf of juvenile inmates seeking to protect children from excessive force and violations of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment and due process.

“The way we, Wisconsin, are treating these children is not just illegal, is not just wrong, it is immoral,” said Larry Dupuis, state ACLU legal director. “It inflicts terrible damage on the youth, it inflicts terrible damage on the guards and it inflicts terrible damage on our society.” 

The ACLU found solitary confinement, defined as torture by the United Nations, was routinely used on up to 20% of the juvenile inmates at a time, often lasting for months.

President Barack Obama banned the use of solitary from federal youth prisons, citing “lasting psychological consequences … Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.” 

Over eight months in 2016, a 14-year-old was kept in solitary confinement for all but two weeks. After the boy tried to commit suicide with an electrical cord, he was transferred to Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. 

Replaying the grisly civil rights protest song “Strange Fruit,” suicide attempts at both juvenile prisons have become so common guards call the knife they use to cut down hanging children “the 911 knife.”

There were 135 attempts of self-harm in the first 10 months of last year by girls at Copper Lake, about one every other day in a facility that only holds 20 to 35 inmates. 

Children are let out of barren 7- by 10-foot solitary cells for an hour or at most two when they’re chained to classroom desks. When children are not in solitary, the routine method of control is burning pepper spray. In the first 10 months of 2016, pepper spray was used 198 times, often for minor infractions such as failing to follow an order. 

The spray used says everything anyone needs to know about the attitude of the state toward children in its custody.

Commonly called bear spray, reviews describe it as “blisteringly irritating” with a chemical base “that actually opens the pores to increase the stopping power.” Warning to inept guards, “If not used properly, it can disable the user rather than the attacker.”

A state that views its children as savage animals rather than human beings can’t be expected to treat them with human decency.


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