DOC proposes changes to phase out pepper spray, solidary confinement at youth prisons

NOW: DOC proposes changes to phase out pepper spray, solidary confinement at youth prisons

MADISON Wis. (CBS 58) -- Lawmakers received an update from officials at the Department of Correction regarding conditions at Wisconsin's two embattled youth prisons and proposed changes to the use of pepper spray and restraints.

The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee held a public hearing on the Department of Corrections proposed rule that would further restrict the use of pepper spray, strip searches, restraints and solitary confinement at youth prisons.

The series of rules would allow guards to use these procedures if there was a serious risk to security, harm, or imminent danger to others.

Since 2018, the DOC has made strides towards making conditions better at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls after the facilities suffered years of lawsuits and allegations of abuse with frequent pepper spraying of teens and extensive use of solitary confinement, trigging a federal appointed monitor to keep tabs on the prisons.

Since then, it's taken years to close the youth prisons. Nearly three years after it was originally slated to close, both facilities remain open. Gov. Tony Evers signed an order back in 2021, but the funding mechanism was not finalized until a year later to build replacement facilities.

Plans are in the works to build new facilities, with one in Milwaukee anticipated to open in 2026, however some Republicans and Democrats are skeptical.

During the public hearing, Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) pressed DOC officials on whether they prepared to begin closing the prisons.

"Our big first step is getting the Milwaukee facility open," said Lance Horozewski, Assistant Administrator of Division of Juvenile Corrections. "Getting it staffed and operational. That is really our major goal right now."

While court monitored reports have shown operations have improved since 2018, staffing shortages continue to hamper progress.

After the hearing, Wanggaard put blame on the Evers administration for not "presenting a game plan," meanwhile Democratic Sen. Kelda Roys argued the responsibility also falls on lawmakers to find a solution.

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