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Voting With a Criminal Conviction in Wisconsin: “Off Paper” = Ex-Felons May Vote

1 Jun

Every election cycle we hear misinformation about who is allowed to vote. Some people think any criminal conviction, even misdemeanors, make people lose their voting rights. But under Wisconsin law, only those who have been convicted of felonies who are still in prison or who haven’t completed their entire sentence cannot vote. Once felons are “off paper” (or has completed all probation, parole and extended supervision), they can register and vote again.

The ACLU of Wisconsin worked to change the state law under the Doyle administration. Back around 2009, a statewide effort brought together faith groups, prisoner reentry organizations, racial justice groups and voters who were passionate about democracy and human rights to work to change the law and allow those with felony convictions to get their voting rights back upon release from prison. Some supporters said the change would decrease costs and confusion associated with the restriction. Others said participation in democracy, particularly for those who are living and working in our communities, is an important aspect of having former prisoners reintegrate into society. And with Wisconsin’s disproportionate minority incarceration rate, disfranchising felons perpetuates Jim Crow style suppression of minority communities. The law should still be changed, but for now voters need to know that felons have to wait until they are off paper to vote.

The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation is distributing non-partisan “Know Your Voting Rights: Wisconsin” guides to clarify some of Wisconsin’s new voting rules. These one-page fact sheets are available in Spanish and English on the aclu-wi.org website (factsheets are also available for student voters and voters with criminal convictions). As part of the national ACLU’s “Let Me Vote” campaign, the ACLU is working in Wisconsin and across the country to educate citizens about their voting rights and help them overcome the unfair barriers recently passed in many states to suppress the right to vote.

Help support the civil liberties news and opinion you get on Forward for Liberty. Join the ACLU of Wisconsin today or make a tax-deductible donation to the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation. Your contribution keeps Forward for Liberty, action alerts via email and social media, and other nonpartisan watchdog efforts going.

ACLU of Wisconsin goes to residents for information concerning Milwaukee police strip searches

2 Apr

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has been trying to investigate the policies and practices of the Milwaukee Police Department regarding strip searches.  The ACLU’s investigation began after the MPD in March acknowledged that Milwaukee police officers may have been conducting unauthorized strip searches and illegal body cavity searches on the public streets.

On March 28, 2012 ACLU made a public records request to the MPD for copies of documents such as orders, memos and report that may help us to assess whether the department is following its own strip search and body cavity search procedures.  The department has not yet produced the documents requested or denied our request.

Because of the delay on the part of MPD and the public interest in this matter, the ACLU of Wisconsin has begun seeking alternative sources of information.

The ACLU is asking citizens for copies of any strip search authorization reports that MPD may have issued to them.  MPD procedures require MPD give the subject of a strip search a copy of a Strip Search Authorization Report.  The police ask the subject of the search to sign and affix a fingerprint to the report.

The ACLU is publicizing their request by means of social media and flyers distributed on the street, in public places, and through community organizations. While it is impossible to know how many Strip Search Authorization Reports the MPD issued by asking citizens, it should be possible to learn relevant information about MPD search practices.  The ACLU has promised to respect the privacy of those who submit copies of forms. The ACLU hopes that more information from the MPD will be forthcoming.  The ACLU will share the facts regarding any possible pattern or practice of improper strip searches with appropriate authorities and the public.

Milwaukee residents living in every neighborhood deserve high quality professional police service

2 Apr

Milwaukee residents living in every neighborhood deserve high quality professional police service. No one, regardless of where they live, should have to put up with police misconduct. Recent allegations  that several officers in District Five carried out unauthorized strip searches and illegal body cavity searches need to be investigated carefully, fairly, and comprehensively. While it is important to determine whether or not individual officers violated department policies or state law or civil rights laws, it is equally important that the department evaluate its own policies, practices, and strategies to see if they may have undermined police service and civil liberties.

It is in the interest of residents and the department that the department responds to the alleged incidents of police misconduct with candor, transparency, and self-evaluation. Without violating the due process rights of the officers involved and regardless of the outcome of investigations into their conduct, the department can learn from this controversy and provide better service in the future.

The department must consider what impact its own policies, practices, and strategies may have on the delivery of police services.

For instance, incredible as it sounds, if the officers were truly ignorant of the policies or the differences between a pat down or frisk, a strip search, or a body cavity search, then the department has to explain how its training and supervision failed. Is their training forgotten or ignored when officers detain residents on our public streets?

The department must also evaluate its proactive policing strategy to see if it makes incidents of police misconduct more likely to occur. Under this strategy the Milwaukee Police Department made 240,000 traffic and subject stops in 2010. Traffic stop figures through October 2011 show the department will have made a similar number of stops in 2011, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

This extraordinary number of stops obviously increases the opportunity for interactions between officers and residents to go awry. What’s more as Milwaukee Police Chief Flynn told the newspaper, “Yes, of course we are going to stop lots of innocent people.”  The department should evaluate what message it is sending to officers when its proactive policing strategy disregards a person’s innocence. The message at best says civil liberties are expendable.

We pointed out in an op ed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month that the department should also revisit its decision to create the Gang/Drug Unit when the Metropolitan Investigations Division, formed in August, 2010. It appears that the implicated officers including a sergeant belonged to District Five’s anti-gang unit. Many police managers across the country have moved away from special gang and drug units, especially after revelations of widespread abuse by such units of the Los Angeles Police Department. Perhaps, there is a legitimate use for such units, but it appears the type and level of supervision given to Milwaukee’s anti-gang unit was deficient.

Finally, because metropolitan Milwaukee is a hyper-segregated area along racial and income lines, one cannot address policing without addressing civil rights. In the light of the department’s inability to use traffic stop data to identify possible racially biased policing, it is imperative that the department clarify how it is identifying biased officers. We don’t know if these District Five officers are biased, but bias could be a contributing factor. The department needs to be more aggressive in identifying and remedying individual or systemic bias.

The Milwaukee Police Department has an opportunity to evaluate its policies, practices and strategies following the allegations regarding misconduct by officers from District Five. If it simply investigates the officers, it will be setting Milwaukee up for more frustration. Chief Flynn has the capacity to exercise leadership. He can demonstrate that the department will address possible systemic problems. If so, this controversy may be an opportunity to further improve police community relations.

If you have been the target of racial profiling in Milwaukee or in Wisconsin, tell the ACLU of Wisconsin your story.

Madison: Guantanamo Prison’s 10th Anniversary Marked by Local Events

9 Jan

Madison groups are marking the tenth anniversary of the opening of the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba next week.  These local events are part of a national campaign to close Guantánamo.

TAKE ACTION TODAY: Join the ACLU in asking President Obama to keep his promise to close the prison camp by charging and trying the prisoners who are there, or sending them home.

Monday, January 9, 12 noon to 1 pm, at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr Blvd and Doty St – Madison Vigil for Peace action to close Guantánamo, including street theater with orange jumpsuits.

  • Tuesday, January 10, at 7 pm in the Predolin Hall auditorium, Edgewood College – “Guantánamo, Military Tribunals and the Rule of Law,” a discussion hosted by the United Nations Association of Dane County and Witness Against Torture – Madison.  The evening begins with a screening ofThe Response,” a courtroom drama based on transcripts of the Guantanamo military tribunals.
  • Wednesday, January 11, at 7 pm at Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse, 1101 Williamson Street – Evening of action to close Guantánamo, including writing letters to policymakers and current detainees. Poetry written by detainees.

For more information, contact the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice at (608) 250-9240 or diane@wnpj.org.

The first men arrived at the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on January 11, 2002.  Of the 779 people who have been detained there over the years, only six have been convicted of any crime by a military tribunal.  Most of the 171 remaining detainees were captured simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Most could leave tomorrow if the blanket ban on repatriations to Yemen were lifted.

This month also marks the third anniversary of President Obama’s Executive Order mandating the closure of the Guantánamo detention center within one year.  Not only has the President failed to carry out the Order, he has extended some of the worst aspects of the Guantánamo system by continuing indefinite detentions without charge or trial, employing illegitimate military commissions to try some suspects, and blocking accountability for torture by refusing to conduct independent and thorough investigations, and by attempting to prevent the courts from reviewing lawsuits brought by formerly detained men.

As the tenth anniversary of Guantánamo approaches, the number of experts calling for its closure is growing. Five former U.S. Secretaries of State – including Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright and Colin Powell – concur that closing down the prison camp would be a major step towards repairing the U.S. image abroad. Even George W. Bush has said he would “like Guantánamo to end.”

Read today’s op-ed in the Capitol Times from Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Madison’s Congregation Shaarei Shamayim on why Gitmo must be closed.

Lakhdar Boumediene reflected in Sunday’s New York Times on that anniversary and tells the harrowing tale of the seven and a half years he spent imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. Read more on the ACLU’s Blog of Rights.

Incarcerated Women at Taycheedah Now Have More Options for Psychiatric Care

12 Sep

The recent opining of the Wisconsin Women’s Resource Center, an inpatient psychiatric hospital for women prisoners, will go a long way towards providing desperately needed mental health care, the ACLU said today. Previously, the services that will be offered at the WWRC were available only to male prisoners. The ACLU filed a law suit in 2006 that challenged this unequal and unfair treatment. The WWRC, which can house 45 prisoners, will begin accepting patients this month.

“Until now, the Wisconsin prison system could not provide critical treatment to women suffering from severe and debilitating mental illnesses,” said Gabriel Eber, staff counsel with the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, DC, who represented women at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution in a lawsuit against the state. The class action lawsuit challenged unconstitutional conditions at Taycheedah, the state’s maximum security women’s prison in Fond du Lac. In November 2009, federal district Judge Rudolph Randa found there was sufficient evidence that the lack of inpatient resources for female prisoners violated the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution to hold a trial.

The ACLU and the state settled the lawsuit in December 2010. The agreement requires the state to make substantial improvements to medical care and mental health care and to increase access to programs for women prisoners with disabilities. The agreement also enabled the ACLU to seek court sanctions if the Wisconsin Women’s Resource Center was not completed in a timely manner.

“For too long, female prisoners needing psychiatric care in a hospital setting were treated by overworked staff in poorly equipped facilities at Taycheedah,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, who represented prisoners in the litigation. “We commend the Department of Corrections and are pleased that women prisoners will now have access to desperately needed inpatient mental health care services.” The WWRC is located in Waupun.

Transgender People’s Right to Access Medical Treatment in Prison Upheld by Federal Court

8 Aug

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit today upheld the right of transgender people to receive medical care while they are incarcerated. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Lambda Legal had challenged a Wisconsin law that prohibited prison doctors from prescribing hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery to transgender inmates.

“This was a discriminatory law that cruelly singled out transgender people by denying them – and only them – the medical care they need,” said John Knight, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. “Too often the medical needs of transgender persons are not treated as the serious health issues that they are. We are glad that the appeals court has found that medical professionals, not the Wisconsin legislature, should make medical decisions for inmates.”

The appeals court wrote: “Surely, had the Wisconsin legislature passed a law that DOC inmates with cancer must be treated only with therapy and pain killers, this court would have no trouble concluding that the law was unconstitutional. Refusing to provide effective treatment for a serious medical condition serves no valid enological purpose and amounts to torture.”

In 2005, the state of Wisconsin passed a law that barred prison doctors from providing transgender inmates medically necessary hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery while in state custody. The ACLU, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Lambda Legal sued the state on behalf of transgender inmates, some of whom had been receiving hormone treatment in Wisconsin prisons for years. An injunction was granted to continue hormone treatment until a ruling was made. In April 2010, after a full trial, a federal district court struck down the so-called “Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act.”

“The court correctly ruled that denying prisoners medical treatment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment,” said Dru Levasseur, Lambda Legal’s transgender rights attorney. “The medical needs of transgender people don’t disappear once they enter prison. We’re glad that the court has ruled that the legislature cannot outlaw the only effective treatment for some people with Gender Identity Disorder.”

“This decision should make it abundantly clear that it is unconstitutional to deny transgender inmates hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery absent a medical basis for doing so,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Read more about this case including the text of the court’s decision on the American Civil Liberties Union Fields v. Smith case profile page or on Lambda Legal’s case page.

Media coverage of the court victory included stories in the Wisconsin State Journal (AP wire stories ran in Chicago, the Twin Cities and other areas in the country), Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Advocate, the Wall Street Journal law blog and LGBT-related blogs around the country.

ACLU of WI Wins Federal Lawsuit Over Grossly Deficient Health Care in WI Women’s Prisons

19 Aug

Here is an update on how the ACLU is settling a lawsuit charging inadequate care at the Taycheedah women’s prison. Dramatic improvements in medical and mental health care will ensure female prisoners receive same levels of care as male inmates.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and the law firm Jenner and Block have filed papers seeking court approval of an agreement to settle a longstanding class-action lawsuit charging that grossly deficient medical and mental health care jeopardized the lives of female prisoners at the state’s largest women’s prison.

As part of the agreement, filed on August 20th in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, state officials have agreed to implement a number of significant structural improvements aimed at ensuring that constitutionally adequate levels of care are provided to all prisoners at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution (TCI), and that female prisoners receive the same levels of mental health care as the state’s male prisoners.

“Today’s settlement is a real victory for all female prisoners at TCI who will no longer have to suffer needlessly in a system that fails to comply with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution,” said Gabriel Eber, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “This settlement will lead to dramatic improvements in the quality of health care prisoners will receive.”

Under terms of the settlement agreement, state correctional officials must hire a full-time medical director who will oversee all health care at TCI, be on-site five-days-a-week and be devoted to administration and patient care. State officials will also be required to hire a consultant charged with regularly monitoring the medical care being provided to prisoners, provide recommendations about how to improve care and analyze TCI’s compliance with agreed-upon health care performance standards.

State officials must also complete construction by June 2012 of an off-site women’s resource center that will accept prisoners from TCI who need inpatient-level psychiatric services. Construction of planned annexes at TCI which will provide space for out-of-cell therapeutic activities and group and individual therapy for prisoners with serious mental illnesses must also be completed by June 2012.

Additionally, state officials must make a number of improvements to ensure the safety and access to core programs and services of prisoners with disabilities, including providing prisoners with hearing impairments access to sign language interpreters, reading assistance and Braille materials for prisoners with vision impairments and increased maintenance of paths, walkways and thoroughfares between buildings.

“The health care system at TCI has been in crisis for years and today’s settlement agreement is a monumental step toward achieving much-needed improvements and accountability,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “The measures that will be put in place will have a positive impact not only on the prisoners at TCI but on the communities to which prisoners will return upon release.”

The first-of-its-kind class action lawsuit was filed in 2006 by the ACLU on behalf of women prisoners at TCI. The lawsuit charged that the state prison system put the lives of women prisoners at risk through grossly deficient health care, provided far inferior mental health treatment as compared to men and failed to provide reasonable accommodations to allow prisoners with disabilities to access basic prison services.

The lawsuit sought reforms to the system so that constitutionally adequate care be made available. Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph T. Randa entered a preliminary injunction ordering that significant changes be made immediately to TCI’s dangerous system of administering medications to prisoners.

The ACLU’s lawsuit charged that the prison’s health system violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and that the mental health care system violated the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection, because the women received mental health care far inferior to what male prisoners receive.

A copy of the settlement agreement is available online.

We’ve blogged before about our progress in the case. As the lawsuit is being settled, the story is getting media attention from Wisconsin Public Radio (RealPlayer audio), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal, UPI and News Talk WTAQ.com. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article has a lively comments section, so please post your comments in support of the continued work of the ACLU of Wisconsin to secure humane conditions in our state prison system.

Victory! Federal Court Says Transgender People Allowed Medical Treatment in Prison

2 Apr

On Wednesday, March 31, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin struck down a law that barred transgender people from receiving medical care while they are incarcerated. The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal challenged the law in January 2006 on behalf of transgender prisoners, some of whom had been receiving hormones in Wisconsin prisons for years prior to the passage of the law.

“This decision recognizes that many transgender prisoners require individualized medical treatment. While the court’s ruling does not require any particular treatment, it does mean that doctors are the ones who make these medical decisions,” said John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT Project. “The court’s decision is just common sense.”

Overriding concerns raised by of the Department of Corrections medical personnel, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law, effective in January 2006, that prohibited prison doctors from deciding the best course of treatment for transgender people by barring them from prescribing any type of hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery for transgender people in state custody.

“The court understood that medical treatment is critical for transgender people and that medical decisions should be made by doctors not legislators,” said Dru Levasseur, Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights attorney. “The state cannot decide to withhold treatment from people because they disapprove of their gender identity or medical needs: it’s unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit charged that it is a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection as well as the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment to bar transgender inmates from access to individualized medical care. The legal groups based their challenge on federal case law that establishes that health care providers must determine proper treatment for all prison inmates.

The court ruled that the statute’s ban on medical care constitutes deliberate indifference to the plaintiff’s serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment inasmuch as enforcement of the statute results in the denial of hormone therapy without regard for the individual medical needs of inmates and the medical judgment of their health care providers.

According to the ACLU and Lambda Legal, Wisconsin is the only state in the country to have enacted a law denying transgender people access to medical care while in state custody. The legal team includes John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project; Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin; Cole Thaler and Levasseur, former and current Transgender Rights Project attorneys at Lambda Legal and cooperating attorney Erik Guenther of Hurley, Burish & Stanton, S.C.

Find out more about the Sundstrom v. Frank case on-line, on the Lambda Legal website or read the judge’s order.

The news did get some media attention in Wisconsin. There was an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article and on WISN-ABC 12. The news will likely fuel lots of transphobic sentiments like what you’d find in the Dakota Voice blog (noteworthy: bloggers are pointing out how judges are either elected or appointed by elected officials and that elections matter).

But despite such backlash, things are changing for the trans community. For example, this year, the Obama Administration has added transgender/gender identity to the list of classes of people against whom discrimination in federal employment is prohibited. Check out this page on the ACLU website that answers lots of questions about the rights of transgender people and the law. It covers discrimination law, family law, criminal hate crimes and more.

One Step Closer to Fixing Inadequate Care at WI Women’s Prison

29 Nov

ACLU Lawsuit Charging Inadequate Care At Women’s Prison To Proceed: Federal Judge Rejects State Request To Dismiss Class Action Lawsuit

This week, a federal judge denied a request by Wisconsin state officials to dismiss a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and the law firm of Jenner & Block charging that grossly deficient health care and mental health treatment jeopardizes the lives of women prisoners at a state prison.

In a sternly-worded ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph T. Randa said there “is a great deal of evidence demonstrating that there are systemic and gross deficiencies in staffing, facilities and procedures” at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution (TCI), Wisconsin’s largest women’s prison, and that the evidence suggests that state prison officials “are and have been subjectively aware of the risks that are posed by the administration of medical and mental health care at TCI.” Judge Randa described the state’s attempt to have the case dismissed as “curious” given that the state’s own expert witness described health care at TCI as a system “designed to let people ‘fall through the cracks.’”

“I am pleased that the court is allowing our litigation to proceed and look forward to bringing the case to trial,” said Gabriel Eber, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “Without court-ordered changes, women at TCI will continue to suffer needlessly in a system that still fails to comply with the requirements of the Constitution.”

In a first-of-its-kind class action lawsuit filed in 2006 on behalf of women prisoners in Wisconsin, the ACLU charges that the state prison system puts the lives of women prisoners at risk through grossly deficient health care, provides far inferior mental health treatment as compared to men and fails to provide reasonable accommodations to allow prisoners with disabilities to access basic prison services. Judge Randa’s decision allows all three claims to proceed to trial.

The lawsuit asks the court to order reforms to the system so that constitutionally adequate care is made available. In April 2009, Judge Randa entered a preliminary injunction ordering that significant changes be made immediately to TCI’s dangerous system of administering medications to prisoners.

The ACLU’s lawsuit charges that the prison’s health system violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit also charges the health system violates the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection, because the women receive mental health care far inferior to what male prisoners receive. The ACLU says in the lawsuit that these lapses in mental health care occur against the backdrop of a prison system that has a suicide rate of twice the national average.

“Judge Randa’s decision recognizes a ‘mountain of evidence’ showing the continued failure of state officials to fix a system that has been in crisis for years,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “It is far past time that state officials be held accountable.”

The lawsuit names as defendants a number of senior officials in the state corrections department as well as Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle.

A copy of Judge Randa’s ruling is available online as well as a copy of the ACLU complaint.