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Jon Litscher

Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher says he's focusing on providing an effective educational environment for the young inmates at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, which has been under investigation for more than two years. 

Jon Litscher’s vision for transforming Wisconsin’s troubled juvenile correctional facilities is taking shape — and showing modest results.

Fewer inmates at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls are behaving aggressively or hurting themselves, new state data show.

The results come more than a year after Gov. Scott Walker plucked Litscher out of retirement to return to his old job as state Corrections secretary.

But uncertainty looms over the two juvenile corrections facilities.

The Department of Corrections is defending the state against three federal lawsuits alleging staff at the facilities are mistreating inmates.

And a federal investigation into myriad criminal allegations, including inmate abuse, has been under way for two years.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee County, which sends more youths to the facilities than any other, may stop sending their juvenile offenders there — putting the facility’s future in question.

Litscher attributes the improvements to new training for staff, an overhaul of how the facility manages the mental health needs of inmates and a strict focus on the educational services the prison provides.

“One of the areas that we have focused on continuously, but now we feel is substantially in place, is the whole aspect of dealing with what I would call the psychological needs of these young people,” Litscher said in an interview.

New state data show the number of times an inmate acted aggressively to the point of injuring themselves or each other during the first three months of 2017 is down 44 percent when compared to the first three months of 2016, from 59 incidents in 2016 to 33 in 2017.

However, the facility has also experienced a 25 percent reduction in the number of inmates during that period.

In addition, the number of female inmates who have harmed themselves has dropped in half — from 51 in the first three months of 2016 to 26 in the first three months of this year. DOC did not have data readily available for previous years.

Litscher said while the prison staff have been using what is known as trauma-informed care to manage inmate behavior, or providing therapy for inmates using a strategy that keeps in mind their backgrounds and past experiences, he said there’s now “an intense focus.”

He said the strategy is based upon rewards and incentives despite the prison environment, which has shown results.

Education and treatment

For more than two years, authorities have been investigating at the facilities allegations of child abuse, second-degree sexual assault, misconduct in public office, child neglect, abuse of inmates, strangulation and suffocation, intimidation of victims, using pepper spray to cause bodily harm, intimidation of witnesses, tampering with public records and violating state or county laws governing institutions.

No charges have been filed and Litscher says he has not been informed about the status of the investigation.

Part of Litscher’s approach to changing the public perception of the prison is to focus on the educational environment it provides and practices meant to improve inmates’ emotional health and their behavior.

“We do believe that the culture is now about student education, student psychological service for treatment, group therapy and group interaction to change behaviors,” Litscher said, adding that the goal is for the inmates to return to their homes with less risk of returning to prison as a teenager or adult.

The facility’s school is a key part to that goal, he said.

Inmates at the prison sleep and eat in small, secure, guarded buildings. The prison’s campus also features a chapel and a school building, which houses classrooms, a garage for shop class, a gymnasium for the school’s basketball team and small rooms for group therapy sessions.

Despite the razor wire surrounding the facility’s campus, Litscher — who is also a former school district superintendent — bristles at calling it a prison. Instead, he says it’s a school that emphasizes an “educational and treatment environment.”

“This is a school that’s dealing with young people,” he said. “The educational program along with the support treatment program and the behavioral treatment programs (are) for these young people who have come in with traumas that many of us don’t understand or can’t relate to simply because we haven’t gone through that — or at least to the level of some of the tragedies they have faced. And so that is our focus.”

New group of guards

Nearly all top officials within the DOC that oversaw juvenile corrections have either quit, been fired or retired since the abuse allegations first surfaced in late 2015.

Within the ranks of Lincoln Hills, 39 percent of the facility’s guards who interact directly with inmates, including during altercations, were hired by DOC since Litscher took over.

The staff in those positions are closest to situations that can result in violence or aggressive behavior, and many of the allegations plaguing the facility include guards injuring inmates, instigating fights between inmates or neglecting inmates and leaving them in dangerous situations.

Former guards who spoke to the Wisconsin State Journal last year on the condition of anonymity because of a department policy prohibiting speaking to reporters without permission said policies that led to less control over a volatile environment and forced overtime caused many of the situations under scrutiny by federal authorities.

One way Litscher has tried to remedy staffing issues is to provide more training for guards that includes experience working inside the facility before they are hired permanently.

The locally recruited staff have “more institutional experience before they actually (start working in the facility), which helps them say before they actually walk in, ‘Yes, I can do this,’” Litscher said.

Recruitment a challenge

The prison is in the unincorporated community of Irma, in the town of Birch, which has a population of fewer than 1,000. It’s more than three hours away from Milwaukee County and 20 minutes away from the nearest town that has a movie theater.

Recruiting staff to be guards and teachers at the facility continues to be a struggle, and likely won’t ever stop being one, Litscher said, but he doesn’t attribute it solely to the facility’s location.

“It has as much to do with the economy as it has to do with location,” he said, referring to the state’s low unemployment rate.

Moving forward, the possibility that Milwaukee County officials will send their most serious juvenile offenders elsewhere because, in part, of the facility’s location is on Litscher’s radar but he said he’s not concerned given the scope of the services that would need to be provided to the inmates that the county likely couldn’t handle.

“Our goal is to make Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake the viable Type 1 institution in the state,” Litscher said, referring the DOC’s classification of the type of security provided there, which is equivalent to maximum security for adult inmates.

“I’m not focused on anything else. Milwaukee County certainly has its positions and I respect those deeply … but the fact of the matter is we have obligations to run our school and run our facility in such a way that meets the needs of those young people.”