Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Settlement Agreement Reached in Wisconsin Supermax Suit

by John E. Dannenberg

Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) officials settled the 42 USC § 1983 class action civil rights suit brought by seriously mentally ill prisoners housed in the Boscobel, WI Supermax state prison by agreeing not to house the mentally ill there, by substantially reducing "barbaric" conditions and by implementing programs and services consistent with other high-security Wisconsin prisons. Additionally, the two principal plaintiffs were awarded $3,500 each in damages.

After the prisoners won a substantial preliminary injunction (PI) on October 11, 2001 prohibiting the housing of such mentally ill prisoners at Supermax [ Jones v. Berge , 164 F. Supp.2d 1096 (W.D. Wis. 2001)], and after prison officials lost a procedural end-run maneuver on September 18, 2001 alleging failure to exhaust administrative remedies [ Jones v. Berge , 172 F.Supp.2d 1128 (W.D.Wis. 2001)], defendant prison officials quietly entered into a settlement agreement on January 24, 2002 that permanently altered the "Supermax" concept.

The Agreement, which went to the heart of the problem by eliminating the name "Supermax" and by eliminating the labeling of its prisoners as the "worst of the worst," set forth specific minimum standards (details listed below), all of which were subject to a Court appointed Monitor's continuing oversight.

Ø First, the Agreement gave all Boscobel prisoners the same rights and privileges given at other Wisconsin maximum-security prisons. Significantly, the plan limits "Administrative Confinement" to eight days and adds incentives designed to progress prisoners back to less restrictive housing. "Program Segregation" prisoners cannot be held at Boscobel for more than 365 days. In addition, neither mentally ill nor "Protective Custody" prisoners may ever be housed there.

Ø Placement in the most severe "Level 1" conditions was limited to seven days, with an added seven days if ordered by the Warden. Anything beyond 14 days in Level 1 would require review by the Monitor. Similarly, Level 2 placement was limited to 60 days.

Ø Rules for progressing up to Level 5 and then to the general population were agreed to become part of a Boscobel policy handbook.

Ø For the first time, Level 1 prisoners were ordered to have reading material and video programs. All prisoners above Level 1 shall have TV and additional program material. Levels 4 and 5 now include out-of-cell educational programming and some jobs.

Ø Out-of-cell exercise time was increased to not less than 5 hours per week; visits may not count against this time. Levels 4 and 5 shall include congregate activity. After April 2002, there will be outdoor exercise for Levels 3, 4 and 5. Indoor recreation areas shall be heated to 68 degrees in winter and shall be ventilated appropriately in summer.

Ø Night lighting was reduced 60% to a five-watt bulb. Prisoners are permitted eye covers as sleeping aids.

Ø Canteen is to approximate that of other WI maximum-security prisons.
Visiting rules now permit face-to-face (i.e., not video) non-contact visits in Levels 4 and 5.

Ø Restraints shall be used only in levels 1-3. Use of five-point restraints requires specific prior permission by medical staff and warden approval. Air tasers shall not be used in cells; electronic control devices may not be used on prisoners taking psychiatric medication.

Ø Plans are to be implemented for dental and medical emergencies. All new arrivals shall have an initial health screening.

Ø All prisoners were accorded possession of basic religious articles appropriate to their faith, as specified.

Ø Punishment through food may no longer be used, thus eliminating Nutriloaf.

Ø Both winter and summer cell temperature ranges were specified.

Ø Cell door shutters shall remain open (thereby permitting some visual contact with other human beings during cell time). Calendar clocks shall be installed and maintained in all cells.

Ø Phone privileges progressing by Level were increased and specified.

The Agreement further provides that reasonable attorney fees shall be paid to plaintiffs' attorneys with no fee caps imposed. The parties agreed that the Settlement complies with the basic tenets of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) and that it shall not be terminated prior to five years from the date the Court finally approves the Agreement. See: Settlement Agreement, Jones v. Berge , Case No. 00-C-421-C, US District Court (W.D.Mis. 2001), Jan. 24, 2002.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Jones v. Berge