A soon-to-be-released report from the Department of Corrections will show the highest recorded number of assaults against juvenile correctional staff during a one-year period in state history, according to records obtained by WisPolitics.com.
In interviews with WisPolitics.com, multiple current and former officials at the state’s only youth prison — the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake School — blame the same underlying cause for the uptick in violence: a failure to hold young offenders accountable for their actions while incarcerated.
“You’re at the point right now where the youth are basically running the institutions, and there’s nothing that we can do to hold them accountable for their behavior,” said one longtime employee, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss working conditions.
“We’re sick and tired of being punching bags.”
Records provided to WisPolitics.com by the Department of Corrections show a total of 459 assaults against DOC personnel during fiscal year 2019, the period between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019 during which the DOC records annual data on violence against staff.
The annual figure takes into account both completed assaults and attempted assaults. Attempted assaults are instances in which “the offender planned to do something which would have been a rule violation if actually committed, or the offender did acts which showed a plan to violate the rule when the acts occurred.”
While the overall tally across all DOC institutions only increased by two assaults from FY18, assaults against Division of Juvenile Corrections employees at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake saw an 11 percent spike from the previous year.
The total of 157 completed and attempted assaults against DJC staff in FY19 marks the fourth consecutive year that violence against youth correctional employees ticked up and a “night and day” shift from FY15, when the DOC logged only 13 total assaults against DJC personnel.
But problems at the troubled youth lockup have been mounting since that point. State and federal investigations into allegations of child abuse and neglect culminated in raids of the institution in the waning days of 2015. Lincoln Hills officials were also the subject of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that called on a federal judge to issue an injunction mandating reforms and safeguards.
The injunction, issued in 2017 by U.S. District Judge James Peterson, drastically limited correctional officials’ ability to use pepper spray, restraints and restrictive housing.
But the move, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake employees say, created a perverse, “all carrot and no stick” incentive system and increased the likelihood of assaults on staff by stripping them of the ability to maintain a safe environment.
“When you take every single tool we have away to protect line staff, you’re looking at batteries, and that’s happened,” said a DJC official.
A second veteran employee, who also requested anonymity for fear of retribution at work, added the injunction created a scenario in which staff “don’t have any means to protect ourselves up there anymore.”
“It’s just me and my body and myself and at (my age), any one of those kids can do serious damage to me anytime they want,” the employee said. “At least if they were coming at me before I had my spray and you know what, it would have stopped them.”
But Karyn Rotker, a senior staff attorney at ACLU of Wisconsin, and Karen Lindell, a senior attorney at Juvenile Law Center, in a statement to WisPolitics.com fired back that “practices like the use of solitary confinement and pepper spray don’t make staff or youth safer.”
“Staff need to be provided with ongoing training and opportunities to develop more effective skills and strategies in how they manage and interact with youth and do so in a manner which provides the necessary skills development, confidence and safety necessary to do so in a manner which reduces incidents of violence and safety concerns,” they said.
Rep. Evan Goyke, a Milwaukee Dem who authored legislation last session to close Lincoln Hills and overhaul the state’s youth justice system, agreed that “desired programmatic change” in handling young offenders that reduced the use of restraints, segregation and pepper spray would lead to “totally different” outcomes long term.
But he added that the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities were designed for “a model of juvenile corrections that includes that use of discipline, pepper spray, restraint.”
“A new way of treating kids in an old design facility is not going to work,” he said. “Right now you’re asking a square peg to fit in a round hole and it’s not going to work.”
A DOC spokeswoman in a statement to WisPolitics.com acknowledged Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake staff have “experienced challenges as we continue the transition in our approach of how we work with youth placed in our care.”
“A transition of this nature is difficult and takes time,” spokeswoman Clare Hendricks said. “While challenging, DJC and DOC staff understand these changes are in the best interest of the youth in our care.”
While the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake employees WisPolitics.com spoke with said they believe the tools stripped away by the injunction could have helped to prevent assaults in the short term, they each said lax sentencing protocols employed by the Lincoln County court system — where charges for assaults at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are referred — contributed to an environment that lacks accountability.
Doug Curtis, a former Lincoln Hills employee who retired after nearly two decades at the institution, said Lincoln County judges have “scaled back any form of consequences” for bad behavior. He said the sentences doled out by judges in Lincoln County amount to “essential nothing,” because they often run concurrently with the offender’s initial sentence.
“Even if they do go to court, they don’t have to worry about anything,” Curtis said. “Therefore, why not punch someone?”
While Curtis’ observations are anecdotal, they were echoed by a pair of current Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake employees.
“Lincoln County has to start really seriously hammering time,” one staff member said. “They go to Lincoln County and they come back and everything is, ‘I got nothing. I got nothing.’ There’s no deterrent there to not do bad, so why should they do good?”
A different employee, who was the victim of an assault, said they had to push hard for a Lincoln County judge to even consider battery charges against the perpetrator.
“After my sentencing, the judge — the very next youth that assaulted a staff there and went before him, he stayed a sentence again and it’s my understanding that he’s continuing to stay their sentences,” the official said. “These kids aren’t even getting charged for battering staff.”
Multiple calls to the Lincoln County District Attorney’s office and Juvenile Court system were not returned. Hendricks indicated the DOC does not comment on decisions made by DAs or judges.
Despite the unanimous agreement on the root cause of the assaults, the current and former DJC employees who spoke with WisPolitics.com were divided on how to best address the issue moving forward.
Curtis said serious legal action was the only way to stem the tide of assaults but added the prospects of that happening were unrealistic, because the state was “going to have to spend some money on it.”
“If they took every crime committed up at Lincoln Hills to court, Lincoln County would go broke; they’d run out of money,” Curtis said.
A current Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake official, meanwhile, advocated for the DOC to “take this injunction back to court and give us some of our abilities back.”
“One of the privileges we could take away was phone privileges, and that was a very big deterrent to lose your phone privileges for a week,” the employee said. “But the ACLU put the kibosh on that.”
But another DJC employee favored a different tact: investing in mental health services that can identify and work to mend troubled youth before they enter the correctional system.
“We should be prioritizing that in school — having the support that these youth that don’t have a lot of support in their home environment,” the employee said. “We need this.”
But ultimately, Curtis said, the structural issues at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake run so deep that it’s unlikely for conditions to improve ahead of the July 1, 2021 statutorily mandated deadline the state faces to shut the youth prison down.
“It’s going to take a long time to put Humpty back together again,” he said.