Part 4: Are kids really any safer at Lincoln Hills despite everything we know? Dramatic change is required
Preface by Pam Barker | TLB staff writer
Below is an article copied in its entirety by Jason Stein, republished in the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune last week, on the institutional response to an attempted suicide by an inmate at Lincoln Hills School, a juvenile detention facility in Wisconsin, on April 13, 2016.
Lincoln Hills School for Boys and its sister school, Copper Lake School for Girls, which together occupy a rural campus-like setting 30 miles north of Wasau, were subject to an early morning raid by the FBI on Dec. 5, 2015 as a very delayed response to various people having already sounded the alarm on the treatment of its juvenile inmates. These include Judge Richard Kreul who, back in February 2012, had sent a letter to Governor Scott Walker, copied to then Superintendent of the facility Paul Westerhaus, on the wholly inadequate way staff at the institution were responding to youth in crisis. Mysteriously, this letter was never seen until February 2016.
A Department of Corrections investigation was finally launched in January, 2015, and evidence of abuse against inmates was deemed sufficient to launch a John Doe investigation on October 22, 2015. Then followed the early-morning FBI raid on December 5, leading to the FBI taking over the case in early February 2016. This investigation is expected to continue throughout this year, and includes suspicion of civil rights’ violations in addition to various types of child abuse already alleged.
In Part 3 of this series, which dealt with the very slow pace at which re-housing the inmates has been going, it was clear that communication channels on what was happening at the school were deficient at every level, especially regarding families being informed as to the welfare of their children.
This article suggested, tentatively, that staff were now being more attentive to the problems experienced by the inmates and were better at informing parents, especially in view of the media spotlight put on the school.
The article published below, however, suggests that not much has changed despite the school having a new Superintendent, despite the media spotlight, and despite the ongoing FBI investigation. It also highlights how inadequately staffed the institution still continues to be.
What we can also gather from Stein’s report below is how tragically inappropriate the harsh prison-like conditions would be for even the most well-adjusted youth, but especially for these young people, whose disadvantaged lives to this point guarantee they will not have the coping mechanisms to handle the desperate conditions they are obliged to endure.
This type of article opens our eyes to some of what these troubled teens have to experience as a daily reality.
By Jason Stein
With his roommate dangling from an improvised noose, an inmate in a troubled juvenile prison shouted for aid last month and then pleaded with an officer outside his cell to help save the roommate from dying by suicide, the inmate and his family say.
As the roommate looped a bedsheet around an anchor point on the ceiling and then his neck, the other inmate turned on a call light and yelled for help, waited for the guard to respond, and then struggled to hold up his hanging roommate while he begged the late-arriving guard to open the door, according to multiple sources.
The April 13 incident is only the latest problem at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the sister institution on its campus, Copper Lake School for Girls, which are both under federal investigation for allegations of prisoner abuse, child neglect and other crimes.
The disturbance marks at least the second recent case in which the families of inmates say that the staff at the juvenile prison 30 miles north of Wausau was slow to respond to a suicide attempt. It also represents the latest case in which the staff failed to inform an inmate’s parents of a major incident involving their son or daughter.
The roommate was saved, but since then the 19-year-old inmate who helped save him has struggled with memories of the crisis, acted out and been put in a restrictive unit.
“He didn’t sleep for days because of this, and he’s had nightmares about it,” his father said in an interview.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is not naming the inmate at the request of family members.
Details on the incident come from several accounts, including a letter written by the inmate who held up his roommate. The letter was sent to his parents and signed by more than a dozen other youths at Lincoln Hills. The newspaper has requested an interview with the inmate, whose parents have told prison officials that he could speak with a reporter.
A Department of Corrections spokesman said the agency wouldn’t comment on suicide attempts because of medical privacy laws.
“I can confirm that an incident occurred at Black Elk Living Unit that resulted in a youth being transported to an off-site medical facility,” Tristan Cook said.
Suicide attempts are not uncommon at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, where inmates come from difficult backgrounds and often struggle with substance abuse and mental illness. The Journal Sentinel has already reported:
» A visitor to the Northwoods prison said she watched staff wait at least five minutes on Feb. 23 before assisting a girl who could be heard gagging and choking in another room as she apparently tried to commit suicide.
» A 15-year-old girl was found unconscious in her room on Dec. 5 after trying to hang herself, only hours after authorities conducted a massive raid on the prison, according to records from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. In addition to trying to hang herself, the teenager later told staff that she had taken pills.
» Another teenage girl was found unconscious after an attempted suicide by hanging on Nov. 9. The medical responders shocked the teen with a defibrillator to restart her heart, according to the sheriff’s records.
Less than two weeks after that Nov. 9 attempt, then-Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joy Staab told a reporter that she had “no recent reports of suicide at Copper Lake.”
Union leaders representing corrections workers have argued that staffing shortages and employee turnover within prisons like Lincoln Hills have made it harder to respond to incidents such as suicide attempts.
Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has disputed those claims but did take a step Thursday toward addressing the staffing gaps. Newly appointed Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher announced a $10 million-a-year plan Thursday to raise wages by 80 cents an hour for thousands of prison workers, with employees at critical prisons like Lincoln Hills temporarily receiving more than that.
The April 13 suicide attempt began amid tension between inmates and staff at the Black Elk cottage, one of the housing units scattered across the prison’s campus. The tension led a youth to threaten to kill himself, alarming his roommate.
“I immediately turned on my call light and I kicked the door repeatedly while screaming out, ‘Help staff.’ I received no answer,” the inmate recounts in the letter.
The suicidal teen climbed a bunk bed and tied a sheet to the cage surrounding a smoke alarm on the ceiling, drawing even louder shouts of alarm from the other youth, according to his letter and his accounts of the incident to family. The writer climbed the bunk to untie the sheet but he was too late — the roommate pitched off the bed and dangled in the air.
The inmate, who is just over 6 feet tall and athletic, said he jumped down and hoisted his roommate up to try to keep slack in the noose while inmates in other cells also turned on call lights and yelled for help. By the time a guard arrived, the writer estimates, many minutes had elapsed from the first call for help and he had been holding his roommate up for some time, perhaps several minutes.
“(The guard) just stood there and looked at me. I was yelling, ‘Help’ but he replied, ‘I can’t.’ I said, ‘Open the (expletive) door, I can’t keep holding him.’ He replied again, ‘I can’t’ and then called an emergency on his radio and just stood there and watched through the window,” the inmate wrote.
Once this alarm was sounded, Lincoln Hills staff acted quickly, said Cook, the Corrections Department spokesman.
“Additional security staff responded within two minutes after the alarm was sounded and health care staff responded within four minutes after the alarm was sounded,” he said.
It’s unclear why the guard, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, didn’t initially open the door. One potential reason is the Lincoln Hills general policy against having a guard enter inmates’ rooms without at least one other staffer present. The Journal Sentinel is not naming the guard because there has been no official finding of misconduct.
The youth who wrote about the incident said the suicide attempt has affected his state of mind.
“I can’t sleep at night, my hands won’t stop trembling, it’s like I got an unlimited amount of adrenaline shot through my veins,” he wrote in the letter.
His parents didn’t learn of the incident and their son’s resulting anxiety and back pain until the teen had an opportunity to call them on April 24, 11 days after the incident.
“He was told by them that, ‘OK, we’re going to call and let your parents know what happened,’ and no one called us,” the father said.
Cook said that the agency notified the parents of the inmate who was taken to a medical facility.
“Notifications were made to both the parent and the committing county of the youth involved in the incident noted above,” Cook said.
After hearing from the son who held up his roommate, that teen’s parents also received his letter describing the incident and contacted a prison staffer who confirmed the story and said she was surprised they hadn’t been told.
Their son, the parents say, has a serious criminal record and is on his third stay at Lincoln Hills because of violations of the conditions of past releases.
Born to a mother who was serving a sentence behind bars, the youth was adopted by his current parents. The couple, a nurse and a public works employee from New Berlin, have three other adopted children and a biological daughter.
The teen, a high school graduate, has had support from some of his biological family but also faced challenges like the death of a biological sibling, his adoptive parents said. Their son needs to make amends and reform himself but Lincoln Hills has seemed indifferent at times to whether that happens, they said.
A card sent for their son’s birthday on Jan. 19 was not delivered until late March, they said. In another case, the father had properly requested to join a meeting about his son’s release by telephone and had set aside time at work. But he wasn’t called because staff didn’t notice the written request until he called the staff after the meeting had ended, the father said.
Since his roommate’s attempted suicide, the man’s son has been seen by psychological staff about his anxiety. But on Monday, the teen found himself in another disruptive situation at Lincoln Hills and heard a different inmate once again threaten to kill himself.
This time, the youth lost control of his own emotions and used a chair to bash in a window in a guard booth. He received minor cuts but no one else was targeted or hurt, according to what family members say they were told afterward by Lincoln Hills staff.
The teen, who has been eligible for potential release for weeks, is being held for now in a segregated unit, his parents said.
Patrick Marley and Ashley Luthern of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
About the author
Jason Stein is a staff writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
About the contributor
Pam Barker is a TLB staff writer/analyst based in France. She has an extensive background in the educational systems of several countries at the college and university level as a teacher and administrator.