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Lawsuit Against WI Supermax Settled for $475,000; General Population Prisoners Fill Beds

In January 2007, Wisconsin officials settled a federal lawsuit filed by a prisoner at the state?s former Supermax facility at Boscobel, now called the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF). Canyon Thixton, who arrived at the maximum security prison in April 2001 when he was 17 years old, alleged he was denied clothing and toilet paper for almost two months and assaulted by guards. He obtained a $475,000 settlement. See: Thixton v. Berge, USDC WD WI, Case No. 05-C-0620-C.

That lawsuit, and other suits involving the former Supermax prison, have helped spur much-needed change. One month after the settlement in Thixton?s lawsuit, WSPF began accepting general population prisoners. The decision to house general population prisoners, which had been considered since 2005, was due to a lack of administrative segregation prisoners to occupy the facility?s empty bedspace. Apparently there were not enough highly-dangerous prisoners to justify filling all of WSPF?s maximum-security cells.

The 509?bed facility had been holding only 380 to 390 prisoners, with 50 beds kept open for emergency transfers from other prisons. WSPF was housing 75 prisoners who had been there since it opened in 1999; another 165?195 were still processing through the original Supermax level system of reward and punishment as prisoners were supposed to progress out of the facility based on their behavioral changes.

A number of lawsuits, including at least one class-action, were filed over oppressive conditions at WSPF. ?When you talk to people about it, [and] say they were totally naked for a period of time, sleeping on concrete, no toothbrush, no toilet paper, or very little, things of that nature, I mean that is just not the way people in Wisconsin believe prisons should be operated,? said Ed Garvey, an attorney who represented prisoners in a federal suit.

State Rep. Mark Pocan, who had been a critic of the $47 million Supermax, lauded the decision to fill the facility with general population prisoners. ?I?m pleased with the progress the department is working towards, but if we don?t put a serious investment in it, in some of the capitol, we?re still going to be operating a flawed facility just with a new population,? he said.

Wisconsin Dept. of Correction Secretary Matt Frank was quick to seek such an investment, stating he would request $500,000 from the legislature to construct a building for substance abuse, education and other rehabilitative programs ? programs that were non-existent for prisoners at the former maximum security facility.

One wing of WSPF will continue to house the state?s so called ?worst of the worst? prisoners, numbering about 125 ? less than one-fourth of the beds at the former Supermax. The prison was built at the behest of then Governor Tommy Thompson to bolster his ?tough on crime? credentials. Like most states, Wisconsin lacked enough violent, predatory prisoners to fill it. However, using a ?build it and they will come?, or ?build it and we?ll fill it?, Wisconsin promptly filled its Supermax prison with mentally ill, recalcitrant and disliked prisoners. Which is why prison officials strenuously oppose any effort to impose an objective classification system on who is housed in such facilities.

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Related legal case

Thixton v. Berge