A top Department of Corrections official and a facility administrator were removed from their positions last week amid a state investigation into allegations of mistreatment of youth at a state prison for juvenile offenders.
A Department of Justice investigation of potential abuse at the Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills schools in Irma has revealed a “culture” among some staff “that may leave youth at risk for harm,” according to a Dec. 3 memo written by Corrections Secretary Edward Wall. The review began in January.
The allegations first surfaced at DOC in late 2014, according to the memo. And two weekends ago, Wall wrote in the memo, a youth was “assaulted by a staff member and sustained serious physical injury due to the actions of a youth counselor.”
Corrections spokeswoman Joy Staab said Monday that the department asked DOJ to investigate allegations that a small group of staff had assaulted youth, concealed activities involving abuse or neglect and willfully destroyed or failed to file reports that would have brought these actions to the attention of management.
Paul Westerhaus, the state’s administrator of juvenile corrections, and John Ourada, superintendent of both facilities, were “relieved of their administrative duties” on Dec. 3, said Staab.
When asked if the two were still employed with DOC, Staab said the two were both scheduled to retire in January and instead “moved up their retirement date.” She would not say if the two were employed as of Monday, instead saying “I can confirm their last day working in the office was Dec. 3.”
The facility, which is about 30 miles north of Wausau, is the state’s youth prison. Copper Lake houses female offenders — 36 as of Friday — while 228 male inmates were at Lincoln Hills, according to Corrections data.
Gov. Scott Walker told reporters Monday that DOC supervisors did not deliberately suppress assault records at the facility.
But AFSCME union representative Troy Bauch, who represents staff at the youth prison, said that was a “twist on words,” and that staff at the youth prison have told DOC officials that a dangerous environment existed in the facility that would result in injuries to youth. Bauch said supervisors failed to comply with department policies by not reporting all incidents and “directed staff to use force in almost every incident” instead of defusing situations.
Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 32, said in a statement that union members who work at the youth prison “have repeatedly raised issues about dangerous decisions that have undermined security at the facility — only to be ignored by DOC leaders.”
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He said members have complained that DOC leaders were “covering up multiple youth-on-youth assaults and assaults on Lincoln Hills staff and failing to report these violent incidents to local law enforcement, as required by law.”
Badger did not return a phone call from the State Journal.
Walker said he was briefed on the investigation by Attorney General Brad Schimel last week. He said the allegations about failure to report assault incidents existed in the “chain of command,” but that concern didn’t appear to reach Wall’s office.
Staab said throughout the investigation, “the department immediately put any staff member identified as potentially involved in any abuse, neglect or other wrongdoing on administrative leave pending investigation.”
Staab would not say whether the staff members on administrative leave are being paid and how many are involved.
On Saturday, about 20 DOJ agents were at the facility interviewing staff, said Bauch.
“Although I remain confident that the vast majority of staff at (Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills) is caring, trusted and do their jobs as expected, there remains a concern that some people may not perform to the standards we expect,” said Wall in the memo.
Wall said any report of “misuse of authority, abuse or any type of injury to a youth no matter how slight” will be reported to his office. He also said investigations into alleged abuse of youth will be expedited and a new panel will be created to review every injury to any youth “regardless of how it was sustained.”
Staab said DOC “proactively referred this to DOJ due to the fact that some of the allegations were coming from youth already released from custody and DOJ has criminal jurisdiction throughout the state.”