Children held at Wisconsin’s troubled youth prisons are growing more frustrated with their treatment and staff seem defeated, according to a court-appointed monitor’s latest appraisal of conditions at the facility.
The state Department of Corrections released Teresa Abreau’s latest report Monday. Abreau was assigned to visit the northern Wisconsin prison periodically as part of a 2017 settlement resolving a federal lawsuit from civil rights and youth advocates demanding improvements at the facilities. The agreement called for guards to stop using pepper spray and prohibited the use of solitary confinement for children who don’t pose an imminent threat to others.
According to her report, Abreau visited the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth facilities in Irma, about 30 miles north of Wausau, on June 24, the 10th time she’s traveled to the prison since the settlement was reached. She said the atmosphere at the prison has deteriorated since her last report in April.
She wrote that she and the civil and youth advocates interviewed 42 youth inmates. They complained that staff used excessive force, confined them to their rooms for “observation,” make racial remarks and have become too quick to use physical force rather than de-escalate situations. They also complained about long stretches of downtime — Abreau reported that 42% of incidents involving inmates in April occurred on either Saturday or Sunday — and not being allowed to go outside.
Abreau and the attorneys also spoke with 33 staff members. She said their morale seemed lower than in April, they appeared less engaged with the inmates and seemed “frustrated and defeated.” They complained that they lacked the punitive tools to manage the children’s behavior and there were no consequences for the children’s actions.
She recommended that prison officials try to fill the inmates’ time by expanding music and gardening programs to the weekends and evenings and get them outside as much as weather permits. Regular training in de-escalation tactics should continue, she added.
She warned that if staff morale doesn’t improve the DOC will struggle to meet the settlement’s requirements.
In a statement reacting to the report, DOC officials said the agency will keep working to help staff at the prison but the workers need to “take ownership” of creating a safe environment by building a better rapport with the children.
Abreau noted that pepper spray wasn’t used during the April 2021 data collection cycle. The incidences of mechanical restraints were the lowest of any prior collection cycle.
The number of educational hours at the prison has increased to 4.94 hours daily at the boys’ side of the prison and 5.2 hours daily on the girls’ side. That’s an increase of 1.19 daily average hours for the boys and 1.48 daily average hours for the girls compared to October.
Problems have plagued the youth prison for years. The FBI launched a sweeping probe in 2015 into allegations of prisoner abuse, sexual assault, intimidation of witnesses and victims and record tampering at the facility.
That investigation ended in 2019 without any charges, but the DOC reached settlements totaling more than $25 million in cases brought by inmates’ families, including a nearly $19 million payout to a teen who suffered severe brain damage after staff was too slow to respond to her suicide attempt.
Former Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill in 2018 to close the prison by January 2021 and replace it with smaller, regional facilities. Gov. Tony Evers extended the deadline to July 1, but the money to build the replacement facilities hasn’t materialized.