New ACLU Lawsuit Details Horrors at Wisconsin "Supermax" Prison

Affiliate: ACLU of Wisconsin
June 29, 2001 12:00 am

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MILWAUKEE–Wisconsin’s super maximum prison in Boscobel is even more inhumane than originally claimed, according to an amended class action lawsuit filed today in Madison by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and a group of concerned attorneys.

The shocking neglect of prisoners in need of medical attention, an increasing bedlam of mentally ill prisoners, and the frequent and repeated use of electroshock weapons on human beings are among the violations of rights the plaintiffs seek to halt.

“”Today, we hope to shed light on an extraordinary institution. The “Supermax” is more of an experiment in sensory deprivation than a prison,”” said Ed Garvey, lead counsel of the group of lawyers representing the prisoners at the Supermax. “It is incredible that neither the media nor Amnesty International have been allowed access to the ‘Supermax’ to see the conditions there,” added Garvey.

According to Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, “The Department of Corrections is ultimately putting the safety of Wisconsin’s citizens at risk by subjecting the prisoners, most of whom will be released one day, to a callous, brutal, and unnecessary regimen.”

The class action complaint, which amends an earlier filing by individual prisoners, states that the medical, mental health and dental care at the Super Maximum Correctional Institution (SMCI) are wholly inadequate.

“”The Supermax in Wisconsin lacks the medical staff and other resources to properly care for the serious medical needs of chronically ill prisoners,” said David Fathi of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

As an example, the amended complaint states that a prisoner who suffers from terminal stomach cancer has lost 56 pounds since his transfer to the facility. The prisoner requires catheterization in order to urinate and must take a strong pain medication, up to once every three hours, to control the pain caused by his disease. The prisoner often receives his medication at incorrect times, with the result that he suffers severe pain and on one occasion no one came to catheterize him.

Mental illness is endemic at the Supermax, the complaint said, and mental health treatment is inadequate.

“The conditions in this place make it an incubator of psychosis,” said Fathi. “Previously healthy prisoners become mentally ill as a result of confinement under these conditions.””

According to the complaint, numerous prisoners at the Supermax hear voices and are obsessed with suicidal thoughts, smear feces, swallow metal objects, cut their flesh, attempt suicide by drug overdose, attempt to hang themselves, and otherwise attempt to harm or kill themselves.

Furthermore, it is alleged that excessive use of force is an everyday occurrence at the facility. Staff at SMCI shock prisoners with electroshock weapons that emit a powerful and painful electric shock, often leaving burn marks on the skin.

In one instance, a prisoner with a chronic mental health problem was stunned 10-15 times because he covered his cell’s video camera and would not comply with an order to remove the covering from the camera. After being stunned, the prisoner was refused treatment by a nurse for the pain caused by the stun weapon.

The lawsuit, Jones’ El v. Litscher et al., is before Judge Barbara Crabb in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin in Madison. Named as defendants are Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections, Secretary Jon Litscher, and SMCI Warden Gerald Berge.

The prisoners are represented by a team of lawyers led by Attorney Ed Garvey of Madison. The other attorneys are Howard Eisenberg, Dean of Marquette University Law School, Milwaukee; David Fathi, Staff Attorney with the National Prison Project of the ACLU Foundation in Washington, D.C.; Attorney Micabil Diaz, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation in Milwaukee; Pamela McGillivray, also of Garvey & Stoddard, and Attorney Robin Shellow of the Shellow Group in Milwaukee.

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