Gov. Scott Walker’s office learned about potential issues at a juvenile prison in Lincoln County in November 2014, according to records released by his office Thursday under the state public records law.
His office also received two separate communications in June and July alleging incidents of staff abusing inmates and inmates abusing staff at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma. And on Nov. 19 Walker’s office received a July audit that found the facility failed to meet a third of about 40 standards set by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Commission.
Then on Dec. 2, after a Thanksgiving weekend incident in which a staff member slammed a door on an inmate’s foot causing a severe injury, Walker ordered the Department of Corrections “to take the most aggressive action possible” to ensure safety at the prison.
Last week, after state Justice Department and FBI agents descended on the facility, it was revealed the Justice Department began an investigation into alleged abuse in January and the Lincoln County District Attorney launched a John Doe probe into allegations ranging from sexual assault to misconduct in public office in October.
On Nov. 25, 2014, Walker’s office received a letter from Cari Taylor, then administrator of the Division of Juvenile Corrections, which stated that concerns raised by the Milwaukee County Human Services Department about juveniles being kept in their rooms because of a staff shortage were being addressed. It also stated Milwaukee juvenile justice system officials had forwarded an anonymous tip about unspecified “concerns within Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools.”
“If further details or information is provided, an outside law enforcement officer will be included to assure impartiality and thoroughness in the process as well as determine if any of the allegations rise to criminal conduct,” Taylor wrote.
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said Thursday in an email that after learning about possible mistreatment of inmates at the school late last year, DOC took action and placed the individuals involved on leave. At the time DOC notified the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and referred the investigation to the state Justice Department.
The records show that on June 10, Walker’s assistant director of constituent services forwarded a message to DOC that Chad Mauk, a counselor at Lincoln Hills, had called alleging that employees were shown a video “depicting employees physically abusing inmates, after which employees were allegedly informed that although they were not supposed to do the things depicted in the video, they would not get in trouble for performing any of these acts.”
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On July 29, Walker’s constituent services director forwarded to DOC an email from Kevin McCarthy, a retired Lincoln Hills employee, raising concerns about severe security problems.
“You are running for the highest office in this country and you have staff who are being assaulted, youth who are being assaulted, doors being broken, windows broken,” McCarthy wrote. “What has to happen, does the sheriffs department or state police need to get involved when the staff at Lincoln Hills loose (sic) that institution?”
The next day, Paul Westerhaus, who had been promoted to Division of Juvenile Corrections administrator in April, responded to McCarthy saying he was aware of the issues at the facility.
“Times have changed since we worked together,” Westerhaus wrote. “Like you, we do not want to see anyone get hurt and will do what we can to keep everyone safe.”
Around the same time, an audit found 13 violations of standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Those included not documenting whether job applicants had been asked about previous sexual misconduct, not properly screening inmates’ risk of victimization or abusiveness, not providing a way for inmates to report abuse to law enforcement outside of DOC, and not conducting regular reviews of internal sexual abuse investigations.
Westerhaus forwarded that preliminary report to Walker’s office Nov. 19, noting the facility had until mid-January to come into compliance and that after a recent progress report “everyone feels we are in good shape and will be able to meet all the standards.”
Westerhaus was relieved of his administrative duties on Dec. 3, a day after Walker was briefed on the ongoing investigation.
On Dec. 2, Walker’s chief of staff told DOC Secretary Ed Wall to immediately “pursue swift and aggressive personnel action against all staff who have engaged in wrongdoing; implement an improved reporting structure whereby every incident of harm in this facility is directly reported to your office; conduct a comprehensive review of protocols and procedures at the facility, specifically documentation related to incidents of harm and use of force; and review and update all training methods for staff at the facility.”