Wisconsin rethinks use of solitary confinement

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Bill Lueders/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Tuesday, July 22, 2014

At Waupun Correctional Institution in 2012, one inmate being transferred to the state prison's segregation unit, commonly known as solitary confinement, was pepper-sprayed three times and tasered twice before the shackles could be applied.

“I'm not going to seg,” he stated, according to a use-of-force report obtained by Gannett Wisconsin Media.

The prison's segregation unit, which houses up to 180 inmates, is not a place inmates want to be. And for good reason: The unit blends severe isolation with the recurring use of force. Two inmates in segregation at Waupun, a state prison 55 miles northeast of Madison, have committed suicide in the past 18 months.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has identified 40 separate allegations of guard-on-inmate abuse involving 33 inmates in Waupun's segregation unit since 2011. (For a spreadsheet summarizing the allegations, see http://bit.ly/waupunallegations.)

Prison officials deny abuse is occurring and accuse the inmates making these allegations of lying. But the volume of complaints has stirred the notice of a state senator, an advocate for the disabled and a former state prison chief.

All of this is playing out against a national debate over the use of solitary confinement, especially for inmates suffering from mental illness. New York, Maine and Virginia have taken recent steps to alter or reduce the use of solitary. The prison chief in New Mexico has also called for reform. In February, a U.S. Senate committee held hearings on the issue.

Former Wisconsin DOC secretary Rick Raemisch, now executive director of Colorado's state prison system, testified before the committee, calling solitary confinement “overused, misused and abused.”

“Segregation either multiplies or manufactures mental illness,” Raemisch said in an interview. “What you're doing is magnifying the problem.”

In an April memo to staff, Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Wall raised a similar concern in announcing that the agency was drafting new policies for segregation. He said locking inmates up without providing corrective or rehabilitative programming “may really just be helping to create a worse behavior problem and habitual threat.”

Is segregation torture?

According to DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab, all but one of the state's adult prisons have segregation. Currently about 1,500 of the state's 22,000 inmates are in segregation, which is commonly used as discipline.

A 2013 report by the Association of State Correctional Administrators found that Wisconsin had 118 inmates who had been in segregation continuously for more than two years.

“The way segregation is used now in Wisconsin is, by definition, torture,” said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, the former head of law-enforcement services in the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Hancock, now director of the Madison-based Prison Ministry Project, cites the call from a United Nations expert for a ban on the use of segregation in excess of 15 days, saying it “can amount to torture.”

Wisconsin law allows inmates to be sentenced to up to 360 days in segregation per disciplinary charge. Subsequent charges can bring additional sentences.

Early this year Raemisch, a former Republican Dane County sheriff who headed the Wisconsin DOC from 2007 to 2011 under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, got a taste of what solitary is like by spending 20 hours in a Colorado prison cell.

“I began to count the small holes carved in the walls,” he wrote in an op-ed on his experience in the New York Times. “Tiny grooves made by inmates who'd chipped away at the cell as the cell chipped away at them.”

According to Raemisch, Colorado has dramatically reduced the number of inmates in segregation, from 1,500 in 2011 to fewer than 500 today, and “we're going to be decreasing that further.” He said the system has virtually ended such confinement for women and the severely mentally ill.

Raemisch believes such changes are vital given that 97 percent of inmates are eventually released.

“You can't give up on trying to make them better, because if you do give up, you're going to make them worse,” he said.

'A sickening place to work'

Studies have linked prolonged solitary confinement to severe anxiety, visual and auditory hallucinations, uncontrollable fear and rage, a lack of impulse control and self-harm.

“It is well documented that the severe psychological stress of spending 23-24 hours a day in a stainless steel and concrete box, often with very little natural sunlight for months on end, no physical contact with friends or family, and virtually nothing to do leads to lasting psychological damage,” declares Wisdom, a faith-based state advocacy group, in a draft report.

Of special concern is the impact on inmates with mental illness. A 2009 Wisconsin state audit found that “mentally ill inmates have been overrepresented in segregation.” In January 2008, it said, 46 percent of the inmates in segregation were mentally ill, compared to a third of the overall prison population. At Waupun, it said, 61 percent of the inmates in segregation were mentally ill.

The DOC denied the Center's request to visit the segregation unit at Waupun and talk to inmates there “based on the disruption it would cause in the facility, your safety and the confidentiality of inmates,” spokeswoman Staab said.

Brian Cunningham, a Waupun correctional officer who heads the union that represents state prison workers, said that is no surprise, calling this form of incarceration the DOC's “dirty little secret.”

“It's sickening to work in seg,” Cunningham said, speaking in his capacity as a union official.

Cunningham, describing the conditions for inmates, paints a bleak picture. “You know, he doesn't come out,” he said. “He's stuck in a cell the size of your bathroom. His bed is made out of concrete. His toilet is bolted to the wall. There is nothing good about seg.”

Inmates sue over treatment

In 2010, state officials agreed to make changes in policy at the segregation unit at Waupun to settle a lawsuit brought by two inmates alleging the conditions there amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The state agreed to provide new windows, magazines and dimmer night lights.

A separate federal lawsuit filed by five inmates in 2011 alleges that segregation is used as punishment for behavior that is due directly to psychological disorders. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled against the inmates and dismissed the case last August. That decision has been appealed.

State psychologist Eugene Braaksma, who worked part-time at Waupun for more than five years, provided a statement to one of the inmates involved in this case, saying the use of segregation “can exacerbate symptoms for individuals suffering from pre-existing anxiety-based mental illnesses.” This can lead to “acting out behaviors” that extend an inmate's confinement.

Braaksma's statement says he tried on several occasions to make his concerns known to Warden William Pollard and other administrative staff. He believes they, thus informed, had “a responsibility (to) explore other options” for these inmates but did not.

Pollard, asked about Braaksma's statement, defended the level of medical and psychological services provided to inmates in segregation.

“The health and well-being of inmates is important to the department,” Pollard wrote, saying psychological and medical staff make regular visits. He added that inmates “are offered several types of programming including various groups and self-help material.”

Calls for change sounded here

Kit Kerschensteiner, managing attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, said inmates with mental illness are punished more frequently and often that is because their disability makes it difficult for them to follow rules.

“Unfortunately, prisons like Waupun were never intended to be treatment facilities,” Kerschensteiner said. “Correctional officers don't have the training or supervision to work with people with mental illness. A crisis situation can quickly escalate and in our experience often ends in excessive force and abuse.”

What is needed, Kerschensteiner said, “is a serious commitment to mental health treatment by the Legislature in the DOC budget.”

Wisdom's draft report calls for a number of specific changes in how Wisconsin uses segregation, including limiting stays to a maximum of 15 days, increasing staff crisis intervention training, providing “a clear and structured path” for inmates to earn their way out of segregation and making sure that inmates are never released directly from segregation into the community.

The memo by Wall does not go into specifics regarding the changes he is seeking, other than its references to corrective and rehabilitative programming. But Staab suggested the changes will fall short of what the DOC's critics would like to see: “For serious cases the maximum penalties have not changed.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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