When a federal judge issued a sweeping decision to curb the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and use of restraints at Wisconsin's teen prison complex, he included a sweeping claim to condemn the conditions at the facility:
"Ted Kaczynski has less restrictive confinement than the youth at Lincoln Hills," James Peterson, chief U.S. district judge for the western district of Wisconsin, said from the bench.
Kaczynski, of course, is the Unabomber, the man that killed three and injured two dozen more in letter and bomb attacks. He is serving a life sentence at a federal "supermax" prison in Colorado known as the "Alcatraz of the Rockies."
In issuing his June 23, 2017 ruling, Peterson said the problem with the use of isolation -- that is, solitary confinement -- as a form of punishment at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls is "acute, immediate and enduring."
The ruling was part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates at the two facilities, which share a campus 30 miles north of Wausau. They house about 170 inmates.
In the ongoing lawsuit, the inmates claim abuse by prison officials in the form of excessive use of pepper spray and confining inmates to solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time.
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation found state officials missed repeated warning signs at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, where lax management, confusion over policies, lack of communication and chronic staff shortages contributed to the problems. Both facilities have been the subject of an FBI criminal investigation involving child abuse and neglect for two years. Prosecutors haven’t said whether or when they might file charges.
Kaczynski is serving a life sentence at the ADX-FLORENCE prison for his decades-long letter and bomb attacks. The prison houses the nation’s worst offenders, such as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
Is Peterson on the mark with his comparison?
Lincoln Hills conditions
Peterson declined to comment on his statement, since the case is still before him. However, documents in the lawsuit and court proceedings in the days leading up to his ruling shed light on the judge’s comments.
For instance, the bulk of the arguments that preceded his comment focused on the use of solitary confinement. The lawsuit itself focuses on three issues separately: use of solitary confinement; use of pepper spray; and use of restraints.
Between 15 percent and 20 percent of inmates at Lincoln Hills are housed in solitary confinement at any given time, according to court documents. The cells are 7-by-10 feet and, prior to Peterson’s ruling, inmates spent 20 hours or more -- sometimes an entire day -- inside them. Under Peterson’s ruling, prison officials have to give youth more out-of-cell time, according to the Journal Sentinel.
When they are let out of their segregated cells for classes, many of those inmates were handcuffed to a desk, according to the lawsuit. These inmates receive an hour of classroom work a day, compared to the usual four to five hours.
The court documents also claim the physical conditions of those cells are dirty and smell like sweat and urine.
Meanwhile, pepper spray was used nearly 300 times throughout the prison complex, not just in solitary confinement areas, from January 2016 to April 2017, according to a June 9, 2017 Journal Sentinel report.
In May 2017, the state acknowledged some of these claims in court documents, including that some youth have spent more than 180 days in solitary confinement and that staff had used pepper spray on youths who were already restrained.
Wisconsin Department of Correction spokesman Tristan Cook said in an email that the department has made changes at the prison and that improvements are ongoing.
Ted Kaczynski conditions
Court filings regarding inmate treatment in the federal supermax in Colorado and reports by news outlets such as The Boston Globe, The New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic paint a bleak picture inside the nation’s most secure prison.
Several of the prison’s 400 inmates spend 23 hours a day in a 7-by-12 foot cell that has a slot for food and small window slit, according to The Boston Globe. Inmates at ADX have claimed denial of psychological medical treatment.
Todd Chapman, public information officer for ADX, disputed these reports in an email.
However, we’re looking specifically at the Unabomber’s prison conditions, since that is the comparison Peterson made.
In an email, Chapman said Kaczynski has a minimum of 30 hours a week outside his cell. Chapman also said that Kaczynski and other inmates are housed singularly and generally have a bed, TV, desk, stool, shelf and a storage area.
Inmates at Lincoln Hills in solitary confinement had less outside time than Kaczynski before Peterson’s ruling, no access to paper or writing material, their lights are kept on 24 hours a day and they have few of the amenities that Kaczynski has.
Those in general population at Lincoln Hills have access to a desk in their room, TV in the dayroom and are outside their cells for significant portions of the day.
Peterson said: "Ted Kaczynski has less restrictive confinement than the youth at Lincoln Hills."
His claim is on target for those Lincoln Hills inmates placed in solitary confinement, which was the issue at hand when the claim was made. The caveat: Those inmates not in solitary confinement would fare differently.
We rate Peterson’s claim Mostly True.