Teenagers serving time at the state’s only secure youth prison have suffered broken wrists, a serious foot injury and broken arms in recent months, prompting a sweeping criminal investigation involving the FBI and the state Department of Justice.
Employees at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls correctional facility in Irma acknowledge in interviews that youths have suffered injuries — including by staff and by other inmates.
They’re the result of tensions within the facility that have existed for years after the state consolidated all youth offenders in the facility to cut costs and managers upended the prison-like atmosphere of the detention center and adopted a less-punitive approach to discipline, workers say.
“They wanted Lincoln Hills to be this day care,” said Al Sholund, a patrolman at the facility who retired in June after working there for 31 years.
Managers asked staff at the youth prison to adopt a “trauma-informed care” approach to managing inmates, Sholund said, which led to fewer restraints being used on violent youths, fewer days inmates spent in a segregated building for punishment and a period of time during which patrolmen were told not to wear uniforms.
DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab did not answer questions about the approach and its results, or claims made by current and former staff about its implementation. But the agency announced Friday what steps it is taking now to improve safety at the facility.
Staab said Monday that the department asked the DOJ to investigate allegations that a small group of staff had assaulted youths, concealed activities involving abuse or neglect and willfully destroyed or failed to file reports that would have brought the actions to the attention of management.
That investigation began in January. A secret criminal John Doe probe was opened in October, after the inquiry provided prosecutors with reason to believe crimes of child abuse, second-degree sexual assault, misconduct in public office, child neglect, abuse of inmates, strangulation and suffocation, intimidation of victims, use of pepper spray to cause bodily harm, intimidation of witnesses, tampering with public records and violating state or county laws governing institutions had occurred at the facility. The FBI confirmed this week it joined the investigation.
More than 10 people have been placed on administrative leave as a result of the investigation, and division head Paul Westerhaus and prison superintendent John Ourada were removed from their positions on Dec. 3.
That action came after another alleged incident of inmate abuse over Thanksgiving weekend, after which the Justice Department reported to Gov. Scott Walker’s office of the more widespread concerns. Walker said last week his administration has taken the matter seriously.
Just before the new approach was being carried out, the prison was competing to stay open.
In 2011, Walker put forward a plan to consolidate three juvenile detention centers into one in order to address years of declines in the number of inmates at each facility, resulting in “growing deficits” within the division’s budget.
After a committee of juvenile justice experts reviewed the three facilities, according to the division’s 2011 annual report, Lincoln Hills, located about 30 miles north of Wausau, was picked. The others, Ethan Allen School and Southern Oaks Girls School, closed in June 2011.
In 2010, Lincoln Hills housed 160 inmates on average per day and Ethan Allen housed 184 inmates, according to DOC data. In 2014, three years after Ethan Allen closed, Lincoln Hills housed 241 inmates.
The facilities cost $25.9 million to operate in 2015. In 2011 the juvenile facilities, including Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks, cost $49.5 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Current and former staff members agreed to speak to the Wisconsin State Journal last week on the condition that they not be named because department policy prohibits staff from speaking to reporters without permission.
They said the more relaxed approach to discipline and the competition to stay open led to supervisors not reporting all incidents in an effort to portray a safer environment than actually existed.
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Because staff placed fewer restraints on inmates, the young offenders became immune to consequences and staff members started losing control of inmate behavior, Sholund said. That led to more physical confrontations — despite the attempt to create a more comforting environment for youth offenders, he said. Meanwhile, staff was working overtime regularly.
“There have been situations where inmates got hurt because we weren’t following proper procedure,” said one staff member. “I’ve been told to basically shut up and do what you’re told. I’ve had teeth knocked out and you’re told to just suck it up.”
Just this month, a frustrated staff member resigned after slamming a door in anger, inadvertently closing it on an inmate’s foot, causing a serious injury.
Sholund said the less-punitive approach was partially to blame for an increase of assaults on staff and injuries to youths over the last four years.
“It was a total disregard of the norm of creating a safe and secure environment there in the institution,” he said.
One staff member said the approach has resulted in inmates not automatically disciplined for offenses like making derogatory remarks to staff or drawing sexually suggestive images on walls, for example.
The examples cited by the staff members, and their claims of working more overtime and incurring more injuries while being discouraged to file incident reports could not be independently verified.
AFSCME, the union representing the workers, did not supply data on staff injuries. The Department of Corrections last week did not respond to requests for information on staffing, overtime, and injury reports at Lincoln Hills.
Rep. Mary Czaja, R-Irma, who met with DOC administrators in March to discuss concerns about inmates abusing staff, provided the State Journal with a DOC report on staff assaults and injuries for fiscal year 2014, the first year the Division of Juvenile Corrections collected such data.
According to the report, there were 16 assaults on staff, seven of which resulted in injuries. Eleven involved spitting or throwing liquid or an object and five involved battery. Half occurred at Lincoln Hills and the other half occurred at Copper Lake. Twelve of the assaults were referred to law enforcement.
The report noted that since 2011 the number of girls with significant mental health problems has tripled.
Strategies the report listed for addressing staff assaults included improving “the conditions of confinement and quality of life for youth by monitoring youth’s rights, safety and quality of services,” year-round training on adolescent brain development, trauma-informed care, cultural sensitivity, communication skills and a reduction in the use of seclusion and restraints.
The Department of Corrections’ Division of Juvenile Corrections annual report for 2014 describes how “the division continues to incorporate trauma-informed care and evidence-based practices into daily practices at the facility, program, and supervision levels.”
“At the juvenile correctional facilities, for example, DJC has reduced the use of room and security confinement for the youth in our care.”
According to DOC, the approach “seeks to develop a treatment culture that is responsive to trauma-related needs by modifying policies and practices surrounding behavior modification programs, increasing family involvement in youth treatment, introducing sensory interventions and calm rooms, and providing a positive environment for youth to practice safe coping skills and work through challenging situations.”
The approach is used in juvenile justice systems across the country, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which tracks trends in juvenile justice systems and advocates for the approach.
“Providing a safe environment of care for youth that reduces re-traumatization is essential,” said a 2013 report on current issues with trauma-informed care. “This element is somewhat unique to the juvenile justice system, as youth reside in justice facilities for varying lengths of time. This is also a challenging element because of the correctional mindset that many juvenile facilities were built upon.”
The approach is rooted in addressing behaviors that emerge when a child grows up in poverty or dangerous situations, according to the network. It seeks to rehabilitate through working with parents and tailoring discipline to each child as opposed to a one-size-fits-all set of rules and punishments.