Lincoln Hills entrance

The entrance to the state's youth prison in Irma is decorated for the holidays in this 2016 file photo. 

MOLLY BECK, STATE JOURNAL

Inmates at the state’s youth prison have kicked in glass windows, stolen pepper spray and threatened to rape female staff members since a federal judge told state Department of Corrections officials to make drastic changes in how they manage prisoners’ behavior, records show.

Ten staff members at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma told Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, through interviews with his staff that they fear for their lives and that the facility is no longer safe.

The comments came after U.S. Judge James Peterson ordered prison officials in July not to keep inmates in solitary confinement around the clock for weeks, not to excessively pepper spray inmates and not to put them in shackles regularly.

“Kids now believe they have nothing to lose,” one staff member told Tiffany’s aides.

“I am afraid of getting killed by an inmate,” said another staff member who recently resigned.

The staff interviews were summarized and compiled by Tiffany’s staff and released to the Wisconsin State Journal under the state’s open records law. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel first reported on the records.

The federal order was issued as part of a class-action lawsuit brought by current and former inmates represented by the American Civil Liberties Union-Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center, alleging that the staff at the prison have abused the inmates with the practices Peterson ordered changed.

But the staff members’ accounts of the atmosphere at the facility raise questions about whether staff were trained to manage behavior in other ways, to replace the practices the order ended.

“Within days after the decision, the environment has made a complete change,” one staff member said. “Employees always had to question their safety but now they feel unsafe. Management has expressed that their hands are tied and they are unable to do much after the decision.”

One staff member, who has been out of work on medical leave for more than a month, said an inmate once stole a can of pepper spray and then hit him in the head with it. Tristan Cook, a Department of Corrections spokesman, confirmed that an inmate took the spray but said there was “no indication” that a staff member suffered a head injury.

Another staff member told Tiffany’s office she is “afraid the kids may take over” and that during one incident inmates busted multiple windows and doors and used pepper spray on staff. Cook confirmed two inmates “damaged state property within a housing unit.”

Worse for women

For female staff members, it can be worse, according to the records and State Journal interviews with sources who have direct knowledge of the prison’s atmosphere but are not allowed to speak publicly.

One female staff member told Tiffany that every day for a week, she was “verbally sexually assaulted.” She said a group of male inmates will yell out their windows and describe in explicit detail how they would sexually assault her.

“The staff in this building are dealing with far bigger problems than me being verbally assaulted so I no longer stop and ask for help,” she said.

Cook said staff are encouraged to submit reports of such incidents.

In addition, the State Journal reported this week that inmates conspired to electrocute another guard in September, and prison administrators did not call the police about the incident nor punish the inmates.

Two other staff members reported being assaulted in recent weeks.

Legislators respond

Tiffany and Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, represent the area of the prison and wrote a letter to Peterson asking that he reverse his order.

“The DOC, under the leadership of Secretary (Jon) Litscher, is making a good faith effort to implement your Order. Based on correspondence from staff at LHS … your Order is not working. Your Order has emboldened some youth offenders to the point they are attacking both staff and other youth,” the two wrote.

The order is part of a lawsuit that is one of several filed alleging abuse of inmates, and comes amid a nearly three-year investigation now headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into how staff have treated inmates.

The two lawmakers wrote Peterson has “mentioned frequently the constitutional rights youth have at LHS. We agree they have important constitutional protections but what are you going to do about the constitutional rights of the dedicated public servants at LHS when they are beaten and harassed by youth who know a judge will take their side?”

But the lawyers that represent the dozens of inmates who allege they have suffered permanent harm at the youth prison because of its practices of heavily using solitary confinement and pepper spray say the lawmakers are missing the point: that prison administrators could find safe ways to manage the institution that also do not harm inmates.

“It is stunning that state legislators would ask a federal judge to walk back a ruling compelled by the U.S. Constitution. State officials cannot treat children in violation of the mandates of the 8th and 14th amendments, yet that that is precisely the outcome sought by this letter,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center. “The fact that corrections staff at LHS can think of no other way to manage and rehabilitate the youth in their care is their failing, not the federal court’s.”

Democrats also pointed out that Tiffany and Felzkowski, who sit on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, voted against Democratic proposals to reduce overtime, increase training and add staff during the budget-writing process.

Site’s closing sought

Meanwhile, some staff at the prison are seeking a different remedy altogether: closing the facility.

“We want to be closed down,” one staff member said in an interview with the State Journal. “This has been broken for so long.”

The staff member described the facility as a “place that is out of control.”

“They’re not going to protect me and I can’t defend myself,” the staff member said. “The youth run the institution — it’s a prison where the inmates run the prison.”

Doug Curtis, who retired from the prison last fall after 20 years there, said the facility should close or be converted into a prison for adults.

“Can we put Humpty-Dumpty back together again? I don’t think so,” Curtis said. “They’re putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound.”

A spokesman for the DOC did not immediately have a response to questions or to the allegations.

DOC Secretary Jon Litscher told reporters Thursday that he believes the facility is safe for staff.

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(9) comments

zoewyse

I can absolutely appreciate that staff in this prison may feel unsafe for some very good reasons. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that the youth in this facility are more dangerous or difficult to work with than the countless other youth in custody throughout this country. Other settings do a more effective job of working with youth than staff do in this facility. Staff may be well-intentioned but do not have the training they need to be effective.

In addition, given that abusive practices have taken place for so long, it is highly predictable that the youth in this facility are experiencing a high level of rage against staff and are now in a position to express that rage through behaviors. That is not really shocking. Building a sense of trust and safety within this prison is the responsibility of staff. Recruiting and retaining quality staff whose philosophy of working with youth aligns with healthy developmental psychological theory of youth is essential. Staff that have been abusive in the past and are not able to apologize and change their way of relating to youth should not work in this type of setting.

Closing this facility may well be an excellent idea. There are other approaches to helping youth that may be much more effective. Smaller settings with staff trained in more therapeutic approaches could be far more effective. At this point, given the amount of abuse by staff that has already taken place, these youth are likely to be even more traumatized than they were upon entering the facility and the outpouring of rage that is happening now seems extremely predictable and normal.

Creating a culture change in the facility--if that is even possible at this point--is the primary responsibility of staff. Closing the facility and giving everyone a fresh start in a healthy and safe setting may well be needed.

Jusssayin'

The powers that be need to return those in charge with the power to run the joint instead of listening to the parents yelling about how their sweet little angels are being victimized and mistreated. When do they take on some personal responsibility? When you hire your campaign doners and not qualified individuals to run the show, this is what you get. Algorithms saying these kids are low risk and doing nothing to hold them accountable. Wake up, tax payers! Corrections in WI is broken and gets worse with every fix!

Climatehoaxer

More pepper spray and shakles needed. Show em who's running the joint

BichonFrise

Lets put these little smarty pants in prison with the big boys and girls and see now long they last. I say if they are over 13 and do a crime,,, they are old enough to go to adult prisons. Those Guys and Gals with take of those little biotches.

FearorLove

Restorative Justice Council
https://restorativejustice.org.uk/

serenity

If the state would invest in quality trauma informed mental health and substance abuse treatment these young people would have a chance of learning how to create a healthy life for themselves. Brute force and long term isolation (which has been proven to cause even more mental health issues) does not create change. I agree the staff needs extensive training on how to work with the young offenders in different ways than they have been.

lutefisk

I have a former coworker working in that facility. Not as a guard or staff but in facilities. He said it's scary everyday. And he's not really in such a threatening place. But his quote was they are all on guard every day as they should be however they know it's coming... it's going to happen. these are serious offenders not kids criminals severe criminals. blame the ACLU

Styx 'n' Stones

Throwing something at someone else with the intent to do harm, and in fact causing a concussion... doesn't that fall under the context of deadly force?

The brats are running the place because they're ALLOWED TO run the place. The adults need to show more backbone and remind the riff-raff who's in charge, and do it quickly lest you have a mob on your hands. Solitary and pepper spray doesn't appear to be doing the job.

canman

Just because they are juveniles doesn't mean ther are not hardened dangerous criminals. These punks are in prison for a reason and should be treated accordingly, and because some self righteous judge who has never worked in a prison doesn't understand that and feels sorry for these punks and says they have "rights", the inmates run the joint. When you are sentenced to prison, it should teach you to change your behavior or pay the consequences.

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