MADISON -- Wisconsin prison officials have quietly relaxed solitary-confinement policies over the past year, according to a report from a nonprofit journalism training center.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported Sunday that documents from the state Department of Corrections show the agency no longer uses solitary confinement to punish prisoners who commit minor rule infractions and prison officials are now negotiating with inmates over sanctions for such violations. Prisoners can no longer be punished for harming themselves.
Other policy revisions state that solitary confinement is to be used only for offenses that threaten life, property, staff or other inmates or threaten an institution's security. The maximum initial term of confinement is 90 days for the most serious offenses, such as assault or taking a hostage. The DOC secretary must review all confinements of at least 120 days.
The DOC's old policy stated a prisoner could be isolated for up to 360 days for a wide range of offenses.
The documents also show that the agency is considering policy revisions that would allow prison officials to keep inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely until behavior improves.
DOC Secretary Ed Wall sent a memo to agency employees in April 2014 saying inmates in solitary need rehabilitation and promising to develop better ways to deal with them. But the agency didn't announce any of the policy changes publicly.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism obtained the policy documents through an open records request. The DOC didn't release the records and the center filed a lawsuit demanding them in January.
The agency finally turned the documents over as part of a June settlement.
DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab told The Associated Press in an email Monday afternoon that the effort to revamp the policies began in August 2014 when a work group convened to review the strategies. The revisions took effect in January, she said.
The changes are designed to allow prison officials to address violations more quickly with discipline related to the offense, she said.
"As part of this change, (solitary confinement) has become the last alternative used to correct behavior, typically when other dispositions have failed," Staab wrote.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who controls the DOC, is running for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. His state spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, didn't immediately respond to an email from the AP on Monday morning asking whether he supports the DOC's solitary confinement changes.
Walker co-sponsored a bill that created Wisconsin's truth-in-sentencing law, which eliminated time off for good behavior, when he was in the state Assembly more than a decade ago. As governor he signed a bill that ended early release for well-behaved prisoners and has yet to grant a pardon.
A coalition of church congregations known as WISDOM launched a campaign in July 2014 calling for reforms within DOC, including ending solitary confinement.
The Rev. Jerry Hancock, director of the Prison Ministry Project of the First Congregational Church of Christ in Madison, which works with WISDOM on solitary confinement issues, told the AP in a telephone interview that he's glad to see the agency appears to be moving toward reducing solitary confinement, which he likened to torture. However, he said an outside monitor should confirm the policies are being implemented.
"We need to see more from DOC and verify the changes they've proposed are actually (occurring)," he said. "(The revisions) still leave too many people with too many mental health issues at risk (of solitary confinement)."