Ending Wisconsin's Inexcusable Torture of Children
The next time some angry, right-wing blowhard like Rush Limbaugh on the radio or the President of the United States on Twitter complains about unelected judges blocking actions by the public’s elected representatives, Wisconsin will be the perfect example of why an independent judiciary needs to step in to clean up inexcusable horrors created by politicians.
In a long-overdue decision that wouldn’t have happened if the ACLU of Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center hadn’t brought a lawsuit, Federal Judge James Peterson ordered the state to stop torturing and physically and psychologically abusing children in youth prisons intentionally hidden away by politicians in Northern Wisconsin—out of sight and out of mind; it’s not the sort of legal order any elected official should ever have to be given.
Any decent human being would have acted immediately when horrific stories started coming out of Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls years ago about children being sexually assaulted, suffering broken bones and amputations from brutally violent guards, being repeatedly drenched in blistering pepper spray for minor infractions and held month after tortuous month in solitary confinement.
Many people expected the federal government to step in after 50 state and federal agents raided the prisons in late 2015, seizing records. The FBI and U.S. Justice Department began criminally investigating allegations of physical and sexual abuse and destruction and falsification of records. That hope has disappeared under President Donald Trump, who openly advocates torturing prisoners “and worse,” and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, whose racist indifference toward civil and constitutional rights led the U.S. Senate to reject him for a federal judgeship.
Wisconsin’s political leaders have done virtually nothing since a Racine judge first alerted the state in 2012—writing directly to Gov. Scott Walker—about why Racine County would no longer send children to such unsafe facilities. Walker claimed he never saw the letter. But even after years of appalling media horror stories, Walker still refuses even to visit the prisons to witness what’s going on in the black sites of torture and abuse of children he and his Republican legislature created.
Leadership of the Department of Corrections and at the prison has been shuffled. But Republicans controlling the legislature have never introduced a single reform measure. As Judge Peterson noted last week: “There really is zero effort going on” to make any substantial reforms or to reduce a massive overuse of solitary confinement and pepper spraying as punishment.”
Torture Grew Out of Republican Policies
When Walker and Republican legislators took control of state government in 2011, they may not have intentionally created two statewide prisons hidden away in the north woods specifically to torture children. But that was the direct consequence of their other political priorities.
They shut down youth facilities in Waukesha and Racine counties for the usual Republican reasons—to cut the budget to give big tax breaks to the wealthy. Never mind facilities closer to home were better for the children, primarily from Southeastern Wisconsin, providing support from families who care about them.
Like other prisons around the state, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake created jobs for white people in small towns guarding primarily black and brown urban prisoners they knew little about and often feared. Conditions quickly deteriorated far from major media attention until the reports of rapes and broken bones started coming back.
Republican budget cutting also led directly to the poor training of guards who often worked double shifts as a result of understaffing. That’s how the torture became common from overworked, angry guards excessively using burning, blistering pepper spray and holding up to 20% of the children in solitary confinement, often for months at a time. President Barack Obama issued an executive order banning the use of solitary in federal youth prisons, citing “lasting psychological consequences and, for juveniles especially, increases in the risk of suicide.”
Suicide attempts are common at both youth prisons. In the first 10 months of 2016, there were 135 attempts of self-harm by the 20 to 35 girls at Copper Lake; about one every other day. The blistering pepper spray used 220 times on juveniles at Lincoln Hills in 2016 wasn’t created for human beings. Commonly called “bear spray” by inmates, the pepper spray is sold in outdoor stores to protect campers from wild animals, which tells you everything you need to know about what the prison staff thinks of the children in their custody.
Republicans may not simply be evil people who want to torture children; they just don’t care enough to do anything about it because they have other priorities they consider far more important: cutting government and taxes for the wealthy.
That’s when unelected judges have to step in to protect democracy and, in this case, the lives of children. Somewhere deep down, Republicans should be grateful to be forced to do the right thing and become better people.