At least 10 staff members at the state’s youth prison campus have been put on leave this year as a result of an investigation into allegations of physical mistreatment of inmates.
AFSCME representative Troy Bauch said that of 10 union members at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake schools placed on leave over the course of the year, about six are still on leave. Two of the staff members still on leave, both youth counselors, have been on leave for just shy of a year, he said.
“I imagine there’s more than that — I only know that because those are members,” he said.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joy Staab did not respond to questions about the number of staff on leave.
The staff members were put on leave after the Department of Justice began an investigation into the allegations in January 2015, he said. A secret John Doe probe into the matter began in October, according to court records.
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.
But Bauch, who represents staff at the Lincoln Hills boys school and Copper Lake girls school, said staff there 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.
One staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a department policy that prohibits staff members from speaking to media without permission, said Tuesday that a security administrator would routinely downgrade incidents between youth from what should be classified as felony battery to fighting, or another less severe offense. The staff member said reports were not created unless a supervisor gave permission, and many of those reports were routinely shredded, lost or misplaced.
The staff member said supervisors actively encouraged practices to subdue inmates that did not follow established policies in order to avoid documenting the incident, thus creating a report.
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“Somewhere it switched from the proper procedure to just go in and drag somebody out,” the staff member said.
Staab did not immediately respond to a request made late Tuesday for comment.
Paul Westerhaus, the state’s administrator of juvenile corrections, and John Ourada, superintendent of both youth facilities, were relieved of their administrative duties on Dec. 3, Staab said Monday.
The move came after DOJ investigators found 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.
Investigators have been at the prison campus for four days and have set up a makeshift headquarters in one of the unused cottages on the campus, Bauch said Tuesday. The cottage being used typically houses 25 youth inmates who need to be segregated from the rest of the campus.
“They are interviewing every single staff member and every single youth,” Bauch said.
While Westerhaus and Ourada were removed from their positions, it’s not clear if the two are still employed with the DOC.
According to a Nov. 20 memo from Wall to DOC staff provided by Staab, Wall announced with praise that Westerhaus and Ourada planned to retire Jan. 9.
“Paul Westerhaus and John Ourada have devoted much of their lives to the Wisconsin DOC and the improvement of juvenile corrections in our state. Their impact was not only felt in our state, but across the country and their efforts will never be forgotten. I wish them both the very best in retirement,” Wall said in the memo.
Westerhaus’ and Ourada’s retirement date was moved up, Staab said Monday, and the two stopped working Dec. 3.
That day, a hearing in the John Doe case was held in Lincoln County during which a secrecy order was applied, according to court records.