District Court Approves ACLU Settlement, Orders Improvements at Wisconsin's "Supermax"

Affiliate: ACLU of Wisconsin
March 8, 2002 12:00 am

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District Court Approves ACLU Settlement, Orders Improvements at Wisconsin’s “Supermax”


MADISON, WI — Remedying some of the country’s most deplorable prison conditions, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb today approved a settlement agreement between the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and prisoners incarcerated at the Supermax Correctional Institution in Boscobel, Wisconsin.

“Case after case proves that ‘supermax’ confinement is the most inhumane type of confinement in the United States, ” said David C. Fathi of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, which was part of the team that represented the prisoners. “This agreement limits the amount of damage this prison can do to those warehoused within its walls, but the real victory will not occur until supermax facilities are abandoned altogether.”

Prisoners at the facility in Boscobel–a small town on the lower Wisconsin River–are held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for up to a year or more. Prior to today’s agreement, prisoners lived in cells where lights burn 24 hours a day, mentally ill prisoners suffered from inadequate mental health care and abusive treatment by corrections staff, visits from family members were limited to viewing faces on fuzzy television screens, and calls to loved ones were restricted to a few minutes a month.

“Today’s settlement is a triumph for prisoners’ rights,” said Micabil Diaz, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “An independent monitor will oversee the improvements in conditions at the supermax facility and ensure that the state stands by our agreement.”

In addition to the appointment of a monitor for two years, the state has agreed to ban the confinement of seriously mentally ill prisoners at the supermax prison. Evidence has shown that isolated conditions, like those found at the supermax, exacerbate the mental health problems of prisoners. In October of 2001, Judge Crabb ordered seven mentally ill prisoners removed from the supermax after plaintiffs’ psychiatric expert, Dr. Terry Kupers, evaluated the prisoners’ mental health and advised their immediate removal.

Prisoners continuing to be held at the supermax will receive additional out-of-cell activity, including additional time for exercise with improved recreational facilities and more educational and vocational programming. Cell temperatures will be regulated. Nocturnal lighting will be reduced 60 percent and the Department of Corrections will install clocks in all cells. Face-to-face non-contact visits will be permitted for certain prisoner classifications and phone calls to family members will increase up to five 15-minute calls per month.

Among the most important changes at the supermax are improved dental and medical care and a significant reduction in the use of restraints and electronic control devices. Furthermore, the supermax facility will no longer be called a “Supermax” and prisoners may not be referred to as the “worst of the worst.”

“The torturous conditions that existed at this prison and exist at supermax facilities around the nation treat prisoners worse than caged animals,” Fathi added. “Their prevalence should alarm all Americans because these facilities violate the Constitution and are cruel and inhumane.”

The lawsuit, Jones’ El v. Litscher, was filed as a class action in June, 2001 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

The prisoners are represented by a team of lawyers led by Attorney Ed Garvey of Garvey & Stoddard in Madison, Wisconsin. Other team members include Fathi and Diaz of the American Civil Liberties Union; Howard Eisenberg, Dean of Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee; Glenn Stoddard and Pamela McGillivray, also of Garvey & Stoddard, and Attorney Robin Shellow of the Shellow Group in Milwaukee.

The settlement in this case can be found at: http://archive.aclu.org/court/litscher.pdf.

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