Investigation into Abuse of Juveniles at Lincoln Hills School, Wisconsin, Part 3
A culture has existed at every level where problems are irresponsibly swept under the carpet.
By Pam Barker | TLB staff writer
Since the FBI conducted a raid on Lincoln Hills juvenile detention facility on December 5, 2015, responding to longstanding allegations of abuse against inmates, the welfare of its youth has become a significant logistical problem for the state as it seeks to re-house the adolescents in safer environments.
The political fallout of the situation has also become noteworthy as high-ranking people have been replaced, inadvertently highlighting the way the state government conducts its business.
What we can see coming out of this debacle in even greater relief is a culture of non-communication and a culture of hiding communications, which amount to the same thing – a lack of honesty and transparency that comes right from the top.
Communication has indeed failed at pretty much every level.
In the last article, we saw how Governor Walker had been sent a letter in early 2012 by Judge Richard Kreul, copied to one of Walker’s officials, testifying to some of the significant problems at the school, a letter which Walker claims never to have seen until February 2016.
Whether it be between Lincoln Hills’ staff and law enforcement or, as we shall see, between Lincoln Hills and parents concerning the violence at the facility. Whether it be between Lincoln Hills’ staff and DOJ officials regarding inmate violence and poor working conditions for staff, or even among state officials at the very highest levels going right up to the Governor’s office …
A general culture has existed where problems are irresponsibly swept under the carpet.
Where do teen inmates go for their safety, and when?
In January 2016, after visiting the Lincoln Hills facility, Chief Judge Maxine White of Milwaukee County described treatment of youths there as “inhumane.” She has been pushing the county Department of Health and Human Services to add space to its detention facilities and community-based services.
Chief Judge Maxine White
On February 4, the County Board declared a ‘state of emergency’ and agreed to remove all county teenagers from Lincoln Hills and its school for girls, Copper Lake. Since February, judges have only been sending the most serious offenders to the facility.
As of February 5, 2016, the plan was to rehouse a large percentage of Lincoln Hills’ inmates, up to 160 young people, down south in Milwaukee, which is where most of the young people hail from. $500,000 has been allocated for the project.
White has recommended two possible sites to the County Board: the Milwaukee County House of Correction where juvenile beds could be placed, and a former child adolescent treatment center on Milwaukee County grounds, which would involve expanding an existing juvenile program. White has also asked county officials to propose other options for the benefit of judges sentencing young offenders.
The appropriate administrative and legislative steps were taken by the county executive to get the work underway on February 4, 2016, so it depends on assessing each inmate for the judges to be able to determine which type of facility would be most suitable. It also depends on what other facilities are available, of course.
Painfully Slow, Chaotic Progress
However, from early February to early March, only four teens from Milwaukee County had been managed to be rehoused after reviewing the cases of 20 county inmates for educational, behavioral and health needs. That is 20 out of an estimated 170-172, and only four removed:
‘The slow progress in removing all county youths from both Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the adjacent Copper Lake School for Girls, located 30 miles north of Wausau, is due to a lack of capacity in the county to treat juvenile offenders, Circuit Court Chief Judge Maxine White said.’
The number of Milwaukee County inmates was reported at 170 to 172 in the February county board meeting. However, an updated number was given of 140, so it remains a mystery where the other 32 juveniles have gone – if they were released in Milwaukee County, or if they were put under close county supervision. Forty of these are estimated to be serious offenders who need a prisonlike setting.
Youth in the Janesville, Rock County area were no longer being sent to Lincoln Hills once the story broke about abuse at the facility. Fortunately, only two of the inmates were from the county and have been receiving regular monthly supervisory visits since then. But despite its low numbers of inmates, the county seems to be having the same placement problems as Milwaukee County [emphasis mine]:
The district attorney’s office … has been recommending that youths be placed locally since the allegations came to light, said Dan Niedfeldt, the assistant district attorney who handles juvenile cases.
Horozewski said his department has been looking for an alternative placement for those extreme cases but so far has found none.
On a more somber note, Hector Colon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services in Milwaukee County, says that while county leaders are working hard to remove inmates from Lincoln Hills, it isn’t likely to happen fast: “The fact of the matter is these kids aren’t coming back overnight, they’re not coming back next week, it’s going to take months, even years.”
Political fallout – Wall’s exceptionally poor judgement
On February 5, the day that the FBI confirmed they were taking over the investigation at the facility, Ed Wall submitted his resignation as Department of Corrections Secretary to be replaced by Jon Litscher, who had been the DOC Secretary from 1999 to 2003. On February 15, Wall got his old job back as administrator of the DOJ’s Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI), which he’s entitled to do under state law. He was then placed on leave pending the outcome of the investigation into the facility since his department is involved in the FBI investigation.
According to nbc15, an open records request made by AP showed that Wall was demoted to deputy secretary of the Law Enforcement Services Division on March 1. In an attempt to get his old job back, Wall sent a letter to Governor Walker’s chief of staff and former senator and attorney, Rich Zipperer, at his home regarding Wall’s job transfer, asking him to ‘fix this mess’. The letter included a draft Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission appeal, an official state document. Wall got a reply he evidently didn’t expect.
Ed Wall, Rich Zipperer
This personal appeal to Zipperer caused quite a stir because Wall tried to sidestep the Open Records Law, a transparency regulation which ensures public access to all government communications. Zipperer refused to play ball and publicly disclosed this letter as the law requires.
In the following extract from the letter, Wall makes reference to the Open Records disclosure requirements: “I know that you didn’t want me sending this electronically or to the office because of the (open) records issue, so I elected instead to send it to your home in writing and would ask that you feel free to shred it once you’ve looked it over.”
“Nobody will know that I sent it and this is strictly between you and me,” Wall added. “I understand the concern the administration has over creating records, Rich, but I can’t let that harm me or my family worse that we’ve already been harmed.”
Attempting to strongarm Zipperer, Wall also states that he doesn’t want to hire a lawyer to regain his old job but could if necessary, and hinted that Scott Walker sides with Wall over Brad Schimel, Wisconsin’s Attorney General, in this matter: ‘As the governor said to me the other day, ‘It’s time for Brad [Schimel] to step in here and make the right decisions and stop letting his staff make them for him. This is just wrong.’
A general culture of secrecy from the very top?
While this is certainly an example of extremely poor judgement on Wall’s part, the two references he makes to Zipperer and ‘the administration’ not wanting records to exist of certain communications do seem to be supported by recent legislative history.
In July of last year, twelve Republicans put forward changes to the state’s open records law by tucking them away inside a state budget lawmakers wanted passed. These changes would have allowed public officials to essentially keep secret the way in which they do their jobs. It was duly blasted as ‘an assault on democracy’ by state senator Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) and heavily criticized by an assortment of lawmakers, public officials and advocacy groups alike.
It isn’t a stretch to suppose that Wall is speaking truth in this letter, not least because he evidently feels comfortable saying this to someone as close as Zipperer is to Walker.
Wall’s replacement has his work cut out for him
Jon Litscher, Wall’s replacement, was appointed a week after Wall resigned on Feb. 5th. In a senate judiciary hearing confirming his appointment in late February, Litscher himself referred to ‘many serious concerns’ that his department faces, primary among which is the Lincoln Hills’ situation.
But these problems go well beyond the juvenile corrections system to include forced overtime among corrections’ staff, lack of diversity in recruitment, and improving the system through which inmates make complaints. The state also passed a truth-in-sentencing law back in 1998, which means that inmates automatically receive less if any parole time, resulting in poor inmate behavior and a massively increased state incarceration bill. Litscher has promised to look into changing this as well as working on other reforms. All of that on top of the dire situation in the juvenile system.
Lincoln Hills’ supertintendent also replaced, twice
Once an initial DOJ investigation into the allegations of abuse had been completed around early December 2015, Ed Wall relieved his juvenile corrections director, Paul Westerhaus, as well as John Ourada, the superintendent of Lincoln Hills.
Ourada was replaced in January, 2016 by Wayne Olsen, but it was announced that, as of April 6, Olsen would be leaving to begin a new job on May 1 at Thompson Correctional Center in Deerfield, close to Madison. Unspecified family reasons have been cited for the abrupt departure. Olsen will be succeeded by Deputy Superintendent of Lincoln Hills, Wendy Peterson.
Families of inmates also kept in the dark about problems
It wasn’t just local law enforcement who weren’t notified, as the law requires, about problems of violence and abuse among inmates and staff as we reported in the last article. Shockingly, parents and families have also been kept out of the communication loop regarding the welfare of their own children. According to the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel,
Since at least February 2012, state officials at the highest levels have known of attacks and sexual assaults at Lincoln Hills School for Boys without either contacting or fully disclosing the details to county officials, family members of victims and even law enforcement.
The pattern of not sharing glaring problems continued for years, according to leaders in two counties, state officials, former Lincoln Hills staff and a parent of a juvenile inmate. Meaningful change came only after the public learned late last year of a massive federal and state investigation at the Northwoods prison and the sister facility on its campus, Copper Lake School for Girls.
In another predictably inappropriate move, Scott Walker initially passed the buck onto frontline staff for this dereliction of duty.
Kelli Moore (not her real name), a parent of an inmate whose son is receiving treatment for anxiety, testifies that the institution has never contacted her over any kind of problems going on there, and that revelations of sexual abuse and violence (last November, an inmate lost two toes in an altercation with a staff member when a door was closed on his foot) have filled her with worry. As a sign of things improving, Moore claims that she was contacted by a nurse at the facility recently to tell her her son had stubbed his toe.
An unspecified number of staff have also been fired, which has made it necessary to keep teens in their cells and away from the school classrooms for three weeks because there were insufficient staff to take them to the school area. And according to a whistleblower speaking to the DOJ, reported in the Leader Telegram, inmates couldn’t use the toilets and were forced to use the wastebaskets in their rooms.
Another mom, Angie Goss, whose 16 year old son Austin has spent over a year at Lincoln Hills and requires medication for hyperactive behavior, reacted with shock and upset to learn of the allegations of physical and sexual abuse at Lincoln Hills. Her son, however, had long been reporting instances of aggression by guards toward inmates and repeated instances of being pepper sprayed.
During visits to the facility, guards would monitor conversations between teens and their parents, preventing her own son from relating a story of how an inmate had been injured. She also alleges that her son hasn’t had any education in a year. His medication schedule has not been maintained, either, which renders him more at risk for behavioral problems in a culture where guards are already physically aggressive to inmates. Naturally, she fears his problems could be exacerbated where he would wind up being charged as an adult.
She claims to have received a letter from Lincoln Hills assuring her that the problems at the facility have been rectified following an investigation, but she remains unconvinced. Most probably, she is not alone.
About the author
Pam Barker is a TLB staff writer/analyst. She has an extensive background in the educational system of several countries at the college and university level as a teacher and administrator