MADISON, Wis. – Life is getting better for some of Wisconsin's most dangerous and worst-behaving prisoners.
To settle lawsuits filed by inmates, state officials have agreed to make wide-ranging changes to the segregation unit at the maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institution to make it easier for them to sleep, exercise and communicate.
The 180 inmates who are housed there because they violated prison rules or were deemed a security risk to the general population will be getting new windows, magazines and even Hacky Sacks, according to settlements signed last month and obtained by The Associated Press.
The Department of Corrections said Thursday the changes will cost more than $60,000, and the settlements award the inmates and their attorneys an additional $113,000 in fees and damages.
Inmates Matthew R. Schumacher and Shaun J. Matz had sued, arguing that the conditions in the cells were so isolating and harsh they violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and worsened their mental illnesses. Each had tried to kill himself at Waupun, which a state audit released last year found had the highest suicide rate of all state prisons.
Both had complained that fluorescent night lights that are constantly on for security purposes made it hard for them to sleep, and they were not allowed to cover their eyes without facing discipline. They said the frosted glass windows in their cells didn't allow them to see outside or even discern what time of day it was.
The two also said their four hours of "recreation" per week consisted of going to small cages where there was no exercise equipment and that were freezing cold in the winter. (Their prison-issued coats were also stored in the cold cages). They said they couldn't have photographs of loved ones, couldn't read magazines, couldn't communicate with other inmates or buy basic supplies from the canteen.
All that will change under the settlement, which avoids an expensive class-action lawsuit like ones that have been filed against other state prisons in recent years over harsh conditions.
"These are significant changes that will improve the conditions of confinement for all prisoners in the segregation unit at Waupun," said Gregory Everts of Quarles & Brady law firm, one of the attorneys who represented the inmates. "Our goal was to improve the conditions for prisoners who suffer from serious mental illness. We credit the state for making these changes, but I think there's still more work to be done."
Under the settlement, the night lights will be dimmed to 5 watts instead of 9 and inmates will be allowed to cover their eyes with wash cloths to sleep. A prison committee will study whether to allow sleep masks.
The prison will replace the frosted glass in the cells with clear glass to allow inmates to see outside. Hacky Sacks, basketballs and pull-up bars will be available in the cages. The prison will store inmates' winter coats in warmer spots and provide them with gloves and socks to use during winter.
Prisoners will be allowed to buy additional items from the canteen such as candy bars, deodorant and shaving supplies. They'll be allowed to read magazines and get opportunities to communicate with other inmates through video hookups. The prison has already changed its policy to allow photos of friends and family members.
Corrections spokeswoman Linda Eggert said the "reasonable, relatively low-cost changes" will allow the department to avoid further litigation while maintaining a prison that is safe for workers and inmates. She said the changes will also help "address the sensory and psychological needs" of inmates who have significant mental health problems.
The new windows will be the most expensive part, with an estimated cost between $57,000 and $68,000. Basketballs and Hacky Sacks? They only cost $387.
Schumacher and Matz will each receive $30,000. Matz will also have a $17,000 debt on his prison account erased. Quarles & Brady, which was appointed to take the case pro bono, will receive $36,600 to cover its expenses.
Matz, 30, is serving a 35-year term for first-degree reckless homicide and armed robbery. He was charged in a pair of fatal shootings in Milwaukee in 2003. Schumacher, 28, is serving a life sentence in the beating and stabbing death of a restaurant owner in 1999. Both suffer from multiple mental illnesses.
According to last year's audit, 46 percent of the inmates in segregation have mental health issues, compared to 33 percent in the general population. Eggert said the number of mentally ill inmates has been rising, and the state is addressing their needs "within the budget restraints of the state's fiscal climate."