Lawsuit claims isolation and abuse at Wyoming Boys School

Feb 27, 2024, 2:13 PM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Staff at Wyoming’s state youth detention facility locked juveniles in solitary confinement for weeks at a time, repeatedly buckled one in a restraint chair for up to 12 hours a day and poked fun at another while withholding the leg brace he needed for his disability for months, a federal lawsuit alleges.

The abuses the Wyoming Boys School has been accused of coincided with sharp state budget cuts that shut down part of the facility and occurred even as most other states limit or totally ban juvenile solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement in adult prisons faces growing criticism as a psychologically damaging and ultimately counterproductive way to enforce prison order in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and elsewhere. For the still-developing brains inside juvenile facilities, the practice is especially harmful, alleges the lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Casper.

Permanent psychiatric conditions including paranoia and anxiety can result for youths, according to the lawsuit filed by three former inmates against the Wyoming Department of Family Services, Wyoming Boys School and 10 of the facility’s employees including Superintendent Dale Weber.

“The harms born on people in solitary confinement are well-understood and recognized among mental health researchers, physicians, the human rights community, and corrections officials,” the lawsuit states.

President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody in 2016. Twenty-five states now either limit or ban youth solitary confinement following new laws in the past year in Minnesota and Illinois, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Others limit use of youth solitary confinement through administrative code, policy or court rules. Wyoming is among a handful of states with no restrictions.

At the Wyoming Boys School, a state-run correctional facility for youths ages 12 to 21, solitary confinement is supposed to occur for the least amount of time necessary. Even so, the practice has been commonplace there and even increased, with holds over 72 hours doubling from 2019-2021, according to the lawsuit.

Boys are confined to their rooms or in a cell smaller than a parking space with only a toilet, mattress on the floor, and no form of entertainment except schoolwork.

The Wyoming Department of Family Services, which oversees the Wyoming Boys School, refutes the lawsuit’s allegations of wrongdoing, department spokesman Clint Hanes said by email.

“We look forward to formally responding to the complaint and having our day in court,” Hanes wrote.

One former Wyoming Boys School inmate who is suing spent 30- and 45-day periods in solitary confinement with the shorter stretch occurring in a dormitory building that had been recently vacated due to state budget cuts, according to the lawsuit.

Over two weeks during that period, the youth was buckled at his hands, midsection and feet in a restraint chair for up to 12 hours a day, leading to an eventual suicide attempt and permanent psychological harm, the lawsuit alleges.

Another youth who is suing attempted suicide after 20 periods of solitary confinement, ranging from days to two weeks, that exacerbated his mental illness, according to the lawsuit.

The third plaintiff was kept isolated in his room for all but a week and a half of the five months he spent at the Wyoming Boys School, being let out only to shower or go to the bathroom so infrequently at times he developed a bladder infection, the lawsuit alleges.

Meanwhile, staff took away the leg brace he needed because of a birth defect, mocked the way he walked, and called him a “zombie” and a “clown” because of his disabilities, alleges the lawsuit which says he now needs reconstructive leg surgery after going so long without the brace.

State judges and fellow lawmakers have resisted banning solitary confinement and restrict restraint use for juveniles, said state Rep. Karlee Provenza, a Democrat with a doctorate in experimental psychology.

“We should ban solitary confinement and do a complete overhaul of how we treat our youth in Wyoming — the evidence and recent lawsuit support it,” Provenza said by email.

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Lawsuit claims isolation and abuse at Wyoming Boys School