Investigation into Abuse at Lincoln Hills School, Wisconsin, Part 1
By Pam Barker | TLB staff writer
Lincoln Hills School for Boys and its sister school for girls, Copper Lake School, together make up the juvenile correctional facility resembling a campus, situated remotely in Irma, Wisconsin about 30 miles north of Wasau. Most of the young people come from the Milwaukee area about 3.5 hours away and are informally estimated to comprise more than 50% of non-Caucasian students.
Since early 2015, an investigation first by the state Department of Justice, then latterly by the FBI has been ongoing into allegations of various forms of abuse against juvenile detainees by staff.
A Department of Corrections investigation commenced at the start of 2015 into staff conduct towards its youth population after an anonymous tipoff was received in November, 2014 alleging physical mistreatment of youth and charges of inadequate education. Late in 2014, the DOC put ‘a limited number of individuals’ on leave and forwarded information to the Lincoln County sheriff, who in turn passed the investigation onto the state Department of Justice. Then began a year-long probe during 2015, which continues today.
Evidence was eventually presented by the state’s district attorney during 2015 which caused a John Doe investigation to be launched on October 22 of last year. A John Doe investigation gives a judge exceptionally broad powers to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in secret and compel testimony. Witnesses under this type of investigation are guaranteed anonymity.
Allegations being investigated against Lincoln Hills staff at this time include ‘child neglect, abuse of inmates, strangulation and suffocation, intimidation of victims, using pepper spray to cause bodily harm, intimidation of witnesses, tampering with public records and violating state or county laws governing institutions’. This also includes second-degree sexual assault.
Then on December 5, 2015 an early morning raid was conducted by approximately two dozen agents from the FBI, this coming just two days after Paul Westerhaus, the state’s administrator of juvenile corrections, and John Ourada, superintendent of both facilities, were removed from their positions. Staff coming off shift at the time of the raid as well as those coming on shift were held for hours until each had been questioned by two investigators. They were forbidden to access their e-mail, cell phones and internet. Staff were told they would be subpoenaed if they did not agree to be interviewed during this time; video footage from the facility was downloaded by investigators.
Left to Right: Ed Wall, Paul Westerhaus, John Ourada
During December and January 2016, around 16 staff members were put on leave as a result of preliminary investigations, a few of whom have since resigned. By February 5, Ed Wall, Secretary of the Department of Corrections, submitted his resignation to Gov. Scott Walker, and by February 12, the FBI had taken over the investigation from the DOC. The investigation is expected to be ongoing through 2016.
A Difficult Environment All Round
In addition to a range of abuses allegedly made by certain staff members against inmates, violent incidents have also occurred among inmates themselves and toward staff members:
In interviews, those who have walked the halls of Lincoln Hills say staff and students who followed the rules couldn’t count on safety or fair treatment. Some youth have attacked other youth and staff; some workers have assaulted youth; superiors have been unwilling or unable to take the actions and provide the resources needed for a safe prison; and a racial disconnect has complicated the interactions between rural Wisconsin workers and urban youth offenders.
A culture of downplaying incidents at the supervisory level seems to have prevailed. Staff were encouraged to downgrade incidents from, say, felony battery to fighting, and were instructed to physically intervene in situations and subdue youth using force instead of defusing a situation as required by institutional policy. Reports had to be approved by supervisors first, and of those written, many went missing or were shredded. In many cases, they were simply not written.
Furthermore, while policy dictates that staff wear protective gear to enter cells, that these entries be videotaped, and that supervisors be present when staff make these entries, it rarely occurred that all of these procedures were followed. Speaking on condition of anonymity, staff have said that of these protocols, only that requiring the presence of a supervisor was followed.
Increasingly lax discipline has been cited by staff as one of the problems. Dangerous situations among youths were allegedly becoming more frequent – up to 2 to 4 times per eight-hour shift as opposed to perhaps once. In such situations, inmates are required to be handcuffed and led to a single-occupancy ‘security cottage’ where they would normally spend several weeks. Those stays were being reduced to just a few days latterly, with youth being led there without physical restraint.
Heavy wire screens in cells have been a common feature allowing staff to enter them in security, but recent removal of the screens to promote a more at-home feel for the inmates has led to several incidents in which some adolescents have smashed out their windows.
The Wisconsin State Employees Union has for some time been aware of the risk to their members which institutional leadership has appeared to ignore. By May of last year, the risk of violence to their staff had reached the point where they issued a press release on the matter but withheld its publication out of fear of reprisals according to union representative Troy Bauch. In December,
Bauch provided the Wisconsin State Journal and other media a copy of that statement, along with other emails he said showed that Lincoln Hills leaders didn’t take seriously staff concerns about youth violence and employee safety.
As recently as mid-November, Bauch described to a supervisor a group of unruly boys taking over six rooms at the facility and breaking windows before it “took all the staff they had to take them back.”
“The last three nights have been hell on the staff due to their inability to manage the population,” Bauch wrote in an email on Nov. 18. “They are having group resistance events. Security is full, no consequence for the youth and they know it.”
Another email described two staff members who were physically assaulted.
Left to Right: Troy Bauch, Rick Badger
About the FBI raid of the facility on December 5, Rick Badger, a union leader noted,
“The Saturday morning raid by outside law enforcement officers and investigators at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys would not have been necessary if the facility had not spiraled dangerously out of control,” said Badger, executive director of Council 32 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “AFSCME members for years have complained that DOC leaders were covering up multiple youth-on-youth assaults and assaults on Lincoln Hills staff and failing to report these violent incidents to local law enforcement, as required by law.”
Forty-hour work weeks due to understaffing have also been common practice.
Consolidation of Juvenile Facilities
Lincoln Hills is the state’s only secure youth prison and over the past few years has seen other prison populations consolidated into it. Standing at around 264 inmates – 228 males and 36 females – in December 2015, it used to house 160 in 2010. In June 2011, two other facilities, Ethan Allen School for Boys in Delafield, just 30 miles west of Milwaukee, and Southern Oaks Girls School in Union Grove, at a similar distance south of the city, were amalgamated into the Lincoln Hills site, producing a larger population than it was ever intended to take. Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks were more logical choices of facility since they were far closer to the families of the young inmates. The Lincoln Hills facility, situated at more than 200 miles away from Milwaukee, would have made it impossible for many inmates to see their families.
Operating costs have clearly been a big factor. The consolidation of facilities has saved the state a considerable sum: ‘The facilities cost $25.9 million to operate in 2015. In 2011 the juvenile facilities, including Ethan Allen and Southern Oaks, cost $49.5 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.’
Consolidation may have put competitive pressure on the institutions to be the ones to stay open, and this atmosphere in part could have created an incentive to minimize the appearance of any problems at the facility.
Who Knew What, When – Governor Walker notified in 2012, office failed to act
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