Friday, April 24, 2009

ACLU of WI Victory for Human Rights: Judge Orders Prison Health Fix

U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph T. Randa today ordered correctional officials in Wisconsin to take immediate steps toward fixing the error-prone system of ordering and administering medication to prisoners at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution, the state’s largest women’s prison.

In granting a motion for preliminary injunction filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and the law firm Jenner & Block in January, Judge Randa ordered that correctional officials in Wisconsin begin using licensed practical nurses or medical personnel with equivalent training to distribute and administer prescriptions. Randa also ordered that correctional officials begin to process medication orders and dispense and administer prescribed medications in a timely, accurate and reliable manner.

“Today’s order will bring immediate and essential relief to prisoners at Taycheedah who have suffered for too long as a result of a dysfunctional medication system that jeopardizes their health and safety,” said Gabriel Eber, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “The state will no longer have the option of ignoring the dangers and substantial risks posed by the current system of ordering and administering medications.”

According to the ACLU’s motion, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, women at Taycheedah in need of medicine for infections, life-threatening chronic diseases, pain and other serious medical conditions are forced to wait weeks on end and, if and when their medications do arrive, they often are the wrong medications in the wrong doses.

At Taycheedah, most medications – including powerful psychiatric medications – are administered to prisoners by correctional officers with no medical training. As a result, prisoners frequently receive medications prescribed for other prisoners and overdoses of their own medications. Expert witnesses for both parties agree that this is a dangerous practice. Taycheedah is one of the few state prisons in the nation that does not require nurses or similarly trained medical personnel to administer prisoners’ medications.

According to the motion, the failure of prison officials at Taycheedah to ensure that prisoners properly receive medication forces numerous women to endure unnecessary and prolonged illness, injury, pain and hospitalization, and all prisoners receiving medications are at a significant risk of harm and even death. The motion charged that prison officials have known for years that prisoners have been at significant risk, but despite knowing ways to reduce that risk have simply failed to take the actions necessary to do so.

“Judge Randa has taken a huge step toward alleviating the needless pain and suffering caused by Taycheedah’s failed medication system,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director for the ACLU of Wisconsin. “We hope the Department of Corrections will move quickly to comply with the judge’s order and put an end to its unconstitutional medication practices.”

The motion was filed as part of a 2006 class action lawsuit in which Taycheedah prisoners charge that grossly deficient medical and mental health care at Taycheedah endangers the lives of prisoners.

Read more on our blog about earned release and prison overcrowding as a human rights issue.

A copy of today’s order is available online. Read the ACLU motion for preliminary injunction.

Find out more information about the ACLU National Prison Project and about the ACLU of Wisconsin online.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Domestic partner benefits not even close to marriage

Same-sex couples in Wisconsin must be thinking a lot about second-class citizenship these days. With courts and legislatures in Iowa and Vermont being added to the list of state governments that acknowledge gay and lesbian equality, we have to ask "where is Wisconsin?"

Wisconsin voters who said "no" to the same-sex marriage ban in 2006 were shocked when it passed. Mostly because the amendment went too far: it clearly stated that same-sex marriage would be illegal, but it also bashed civil unions. Anything "substantially similar" to marriage would be illegal for any family outside of the "one-man-one-woman" structure. Those who voted "no" knew that the amendment would institutionalize discrimination and take away equal protection for gay and lesbian people in Wisconsin.

But during the debates around this amendment referendum, many fervent opponents of gay and lesbian equality were clear that the same-sex marriage ban would not take away the ability of government or businesses to recognize certain benefits or protections.

In November of 2005, legislators received a memo from state Senator Scott Fitzgerald and Rep. Mark Gundrum saying that "no particular privileges or benefits would be prohibited" under the marriage ban. They put into writing that legal constructs by governments would be allowed.

Although opponents of the marriage ban expressed fears about its potential impact on domestic partner benefits, the supporters of it, including the chief sponsors of the bill, consistently took the position that domestic partner benefits were safe.

Today the 2009 Executive Budget proposal for the state of Wisconsin (AB 75) would provide for the creation of a domestic partnership registry. Same-sex couples who registered with the state could start a process of being afforded a limited set of benefits or protections.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin wrote to the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance to explain why the proposal does not violate the Wisconsin Constitution’s ban on creating a legal status “substantially similar to that of marriage….”

"These budget provisions are not even close to being substantially similar to marriage,” wrote ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty.

Because the case in defense of the proposal is so strong and because of the ACLU’s long standing support of protections for domestic partners, Ahmuty assured legislators that, “the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Wisconsin are prepared to help defend domestic partners in court.”

Ahmuty, concluded his letter by urging legislators, “to adopt the domestic partner registry proposal with at least the current number, if not more, protections attached.”

Ultimately, it's nice that the legislature is taking a step toward fairness. But let's not forget that for years legislative leaders who supported the marriage ban have gone above and beyond to describe how domestic partnership benefits are inferior to the legal protections provided by marriage.

A domestic partnership registry can help real families in Wisconsin. But it isn't marriage. Our legislators know it. The courts will show it. And it's our friends and families that will have to live with second-class citizenship.

Know Your Rights... Just in Time for the Mifflin Street Party in Madison

The American Civil Liberties Union Student Alliance - UW will host a timely “Know Your Rights Workshop” on Wednesday, April 22 from 7:00 – 9:00 pm (check Today in the Union (TITU) for location).

The workshop will be led by Madison criminal defense attorney Erik Guenther of Hurley, Burish, and Stanton Law Firm and a volunteer attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin.

“I conduct Know Your Rights Workshops regularly on college campuses around the state,” said Guenther. “It is important to me as an attorney to share my legal knowledge with college students who may not know what their constitutional rights are when they find themselves in precarious situations with police officers.”

The workshop will take place ten days prior to the annual Mifflin Street Block party, scheduled for Saturday, May 2. The Mifflin Street Block Party has consistently resulted in many arrests of students and community members. In 2008, 438 attendees were arrested, 383 cited and released, and 51 sent to the Dane County Jail.

“The Mifflin Street Block Party is a well-known haven for arrests and it is important for students to know their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights when dealing with Madison Police,” said Guenther.

Event sponsor ACLUSA-UW aims to be a campus and community civil rights educator.

“The ‘Know Your Rights Workshops’ are just a small, but important sample of the work we do on-campus and in the Madison community,” said ACLUSA-UW president and senior Tracy Fleischman. “Most people are unaware of the extent and details of their civil liberties, so we want to change that.”

During Freakfest, Madison’s annual Halloween block party occurring on State Street, members of the ACLUSA-UW handed out “bust” cards to attendees, meant to serve as a reference for party-goers in the event that they are arrested.

“The cards got a very positive response among those attending Freakfest and far fewer arrests occurred than in past years,” Fleischman said. The number of arrests dropped considerably from 2007’s Freakfest, with only 77 arrested, compared to 181 in 2007, 235 in 2006, and 566 in 2005.

Check UW-Madison’s Today in the Union (TITU) on Wednesday April 22nd for the exact location of the event.

For additional information on the “Know Your Rights” workshop and the ACLUSA-UW, contact Steve Horn at or (262) 705-5856.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Racial profiling in WI: will seat belt enforcement help or hurt the problem?

Americans agree that sometimes police use racial, ethnic or religious stereotypes as a factor in selecting which motor vehicle drivers to stop and search. It's called racial profiling and it is a practice that shouldn't be a part of law enforcement. The trouble is it's hard to get a hold of the scope of the problem if it isn't well-defined and tracked.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin wants law enforcement agencies to determine the extent of unlawful racial profiling and to stop it. But the Governor's proposed budget includes a double-edged sword: funds for primary seat belt enforcement along with a data tracking requirement. In response to these budget provisions, the ACLU of Wisconsin sent a letter with our concerns to Representative Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee) and the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Finance.

We are urging legislators, “to strengthen the proposed budget’s racial profiling section, and to evaluate (and potentially sunset) its primary seat belt enforcement section.”

“These two budget provisions are related because one will track the problem of racial profiling while the other allows primary seat belt enforcement that could exacerbate the problem of racial profiling,” said ACLU of Wisconsin’s executive director, Chris Ahmuty.

“We are suggesting that Wisconsin go ahead with a trial of primary seat belt enforcement, but sunset it if analysis of the collected data determines that primary seat belt enforcement is a source of unlawful stops and searches based in part on racial profiling,” Ahmuty said. “Ever since the Governor Tommy Thompson created the Governor’s Task on Racial Profiling in 1999, we have been waiting for action. Ten years is long enough to wait.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More than money: prison overcrowding is a human rights crisis

Wisconsin’s prisons are so overcrowded that they necessitate budget proposals to allow the early release of some eligible offenders into the community under supervision. Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin wrote to the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance to describe the crisis in our prisons caused by overcrowding.

“These budget proposals will address this crisis to the extent that they allow eligible offenders to leave prison for supervision in the community, thereby making the prisons less crowded, more manageable and less dangerous,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty.

“We commend Governor Jim Doyle for facing reality and making a serious proposal, despite the predictable opposition from supporters of the untenable status quo. We can’t afford to waste tax dollars building more prisons, in effect supporting a ‘prison-industrial complex’,” Ahmuty said today.

Since 1991 Wisconsin’s prison population has tripled to over 22,000 men and women, a severely disproportionate number of whom are persons of color. The capacity of the prison system is a maximum of 18,000 prisoners.

“One of the most pernicious effects of overcrowding is that it makes the delivery of adequate medical services nearly impossible. Alleviating overcrowding and providing adequate space as well as enough health care workers, would at least give the system a chance,” Ahmuty added.

With early release programs, legislators should be reminded that when formerly incarcerated people return to their home communities, reentry programs need to be fortified. Without support and incentives to turn their lives around, prisons will continue to see revolving doors and the state will bear even more costs.

“The proposed sentence modifications and other program changes are long overdue. The ACLU believes all Wisconsin residents and taxpayers would be better off if the Legislature adopts them,” Ahmuty concluded.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Milwaukee School Voucher Experiment Fails Students, Exit Strategy Needed

It is time to end the school voucher program in Milwaukee after years of failure.

Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin urged the co-chairs of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee on Finance to adopt an exit strategy for the school voucher program.

“If we continue to prop up failing schools by giving them taxpayer-funded vouchers we only make it harder and more expensive to undo the harm later,” wrote ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty.

While recent reports from the School Choice Demonstration Project are not conclusive, these reports confirm that "more than 120, mostly small, Milwaukee schools that taxpayers support with tuition vouchers are performing at or below the levels achieved by comparable students attending Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).”

ACLU of Wisconsin’s Ahmuty added, “We believe that the school voucher scheme has always been a distraction. Real improvement in our public schools has to provide an adequate education for all children across the state. We wrote the Joint Finance Committee co-chairs to get the Legislature to cut our losses and reallocate resources to where they will do the most good for our public schools.”

Ahmuty added, ”The voucher system has been particularly hard on Milwaukee’s students of color because the racial gap in performance is widening compared to the rest of the nation. Legislators in Madison have to stop pretending vouchers are a legitimate response to conditions in the state's largest city.”

Ahmuty concluded, “Given the current financial pressure on our educational system, we don’t have the luxury of continuing a failed experiment that may look good to some, but doesn’t deliver for tomorrow’s citizens, workers and families.”