Investigation into Abuse of Juveniles at Lincoln Hills School, Wisconsin, Part 2
Senior State Employees Found Wanting
By Pam Barker | TLB staff writer
It has been informally claimed in various quarters that the problems at Lincoln Hills juvenile detention facility had been going on ‘for years’. Department of Corrections Secretary, Ed Wall, however, claimed that his office only became aware of problems at the facility in late 2014. This despite it being very clear to a Racine County Circuit Court judge in early 2012 that conditions for the facility’s inmates were severely lacking and that correct safety procedures involving youth were not being followed.
February 2012, a judge writes to Gov. Walker, ‘not seen’ until February 2016
On February 10, 2012, Racine County Circuit Court Judge Richard Kreul sent a letter to Governor Scott Walker, copied to Lincoln Hills School Superintendent Paul Westerhaus, with an attached memo detailing a botched investigation into the sexual assult and beating of one Lincoln Hills inmate by another.
In his letter, Kreul described the situation as “sordid” and “inexcusable,” adding “I’ll be thinking long and hard before sending another youth to that place!” The gravity of this situation caused the judge to cease sending other young offenders to the facility.
The link to Judge Kreul’s memo to Walker is here.
Left to Right: Governor Scott Walker, Judge Richard Kreul
The incident to which Kreul refers involved an inmate, guilty of car theft and credit card fraud, having been placed in a cell with a sexual predator. The inmate was threatened with violence if he didn’t respond to his cell mate’s sexual advances. On January 13 2012, the victim was forced to have oral sex and was then beaten up and left unconscious for at least an hour. At 4pm, LHS staff were notified of this incident, but it wasn’t until 10:30pm that the victim was taken to emergency, where medical staff notified the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, doing what LHS staff should have done at 4pm. Prison employee and psychologist, Dr. Paul Hesse explained the delay as having been due to a basketball game taking place in a culture where basketball was considered ‘a big deal’.
Walker’s office revealed the existence of this communication on February 11, 2016 to reporters, and then downplayed it the next day as being one of 350,000 constituent contacts per year his office receives. Hardly plausible considering this came from a judge and had been copied to the Superintendent of Lincoln Hills, Paul Westerhaus. Laurel Patrick, spokeswoman for Walker, said the governor had never seen the note and that it had been referred to the Corrections Department.
On February 12, Walker replaced Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Wall (who had already written a letter of resignation to Walker on Feb 5 but this wasn’t revealed) with Jon Litscher.
Left to Right: Paul Westerhaus, Ed Wall, Jon Litscher
As stated, the judge’s letter had been copied to Paul Westerhaus, Superintendent of Lincoln Hills, who was removed from his position two months earlier, on Dec. 5, 2015. There is no further word about this.
How could TWO state officials, in one case being no less than the governor himself, not see a judge’s letter, which was dated as being officially received on Feb. 14, 2012?
Late 2014, a tipster triggers the current investigation
Thomas Wanta, administrator of the Milwaukee County Division of Delinquency and Court Services, received an anonymous phone call from a woman on November 18, 2014 alleging that inmates at LHS were not receiving an adequate education and that some youths had had their arms broken. This was reported on December 10, 2015: ‘Wanta said his agency, Milwaukee County prosecutors, public defenders, and Circuit Judge Mary Triggiano took the matter to the state Department of Corrections and met with state officials about the allegation the next month.’
Said Wanta, ‘”We took it seriously and we had concerns and we were hoping (state officials) could alleviate our concerns,” [ ] adding that he had received relatively little information about the probe until the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Monday [Dec.7, 2015] on a major weekend raid at the school by law enforcement.’
In other words, the reporting officer who brought the situation to light in November of 2014 only learned about the ongoing investigation and FBI raid on December 5, 2015 from local mainstream media on December 7, 2015, more than a year later.
From this tipoff in late 2014, an internal investigation was then started and some staff were put on leave. Information held by the DOC was passed to the Lincoln County Sheriff, who then forwarded the investigation to the state Department of Justice. The DOJ then commenced its investigation in January, 2015, which went on through 2015, becoming a John Doe investigation by October 22, 2015.
By December 5, 2015 the FBI raided the facility, and the investigation was officially handed over to the FBI on Feburary 12, 2016.
Why did an appropriate investigation, long overdue, only get kicked off because of an anonymous tip?
Left to Right: Thomas Wanta, Rep. Mary Czaja
March 2015, Lawmaker approached by staff-at-risk, problem denied by DOC officials
Rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma), whose district includes Lincoln Hills, had a meeting with Department of Corrections’ officials on March 3, 2015 in response to complaints she had received from two guards at the facility about staff being abused by inmates. This was to lead nowhere:
‘But at that meeting the officials, juvenile corrections administrator Paul Westerhaus and community corrections assistant administrator Cari Taylor, said there were no reports of increased assaults on staff and provided data through 2014 as evidence, the lawmaker said.’
Given what we know about the tendency not to report violent assaults among all parties at the facility, as is required by law, it is likely the data reported to the lawmaker was at least somewhat skewed.
A serious disconnect with the Union, AFSCME
Rick Badger, union leader and AFSCME Council 32 executive director, said that staff concerns about security and forced overtime had gone unheard for a long time: “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.”
In May 2015, a union press release was written but not issued for fear of reprisals against staff: ”Violence and abuse by inmates at the Lincoln County facility had reached a point in May that union officials prepared a news release calling the place a “gladiator school for troubled youth”.
The May press release that went unpublished at the time was made available to local mainstream media sources in December 2015 along with subsequent e-mails from union representative Troy Bauch, which include mention of other instances of violence at the facility. None of these have been made available to this writer nor do they appear to have been publicly disclosed.
Left to Right: Troy Bauch, Rick Badger
Since the passage of Wisconsin Act 10 in 2011, Governor Walker’s way of dealing with a $3.6 billion budget deficit, unions lost their rights to collective bargaining except over wages, which means that any policy change affecting working conditions cannot be subject to negotiation with the union. The union is thus unable to demand appropriate staff training in the implementation of new policies or to address existing problems.
In the case of a 2013 policy change, for example, which placed institutional use of pepper spray exclusively in the hands of supervisors and not regular guards as it had formerly been, the union wanted staff training in alternative methods of dealing with inmate assault, but apparently this was not forthcoming:
But Moeser [Wisconsin Council for Children and Families] says the Lincoln Hills staff has a point that the policy change should include training in new methods to deal with assaults. Staff at the institution has not yet received that training. The union says staff concerns have been ignored since their public employee union lost the power to bargain policy changes like this one.
Further, the loss of collective bargaining rights meant that staff with complaints would be far less likely to come forward given the loss of workplace protection that went along with Act 10 according to Badger. Clearly, the corrections service in Wisconsin was, and likely still is, undergoing a serious staffing crisis:
Walker’s anti-worker “reforms” have created crisis conditions all across Wisconsin’s correctional facilities, driving away experienced staff and making vacancies difficult to fill. Recent reports show a 21 percent increase in overtime between 2013 and 2015.
Experienced staff is burning out. Those who can are bailing out. And a newly imposed overtime policy that strips even the most senior officers of any say in their schedule has made matters worse, increasing the incentive to seek safer, saner, more predictable employment elsewhere.
About Ed Wall, Corrections Secretary, who resigned as of February 27, 2016 and was officially replaced (but was subsequently placed on paid leave because of Wisconsin’s civil service law), Badger notes:
Wall’s standard response to any staff brave enough to point out workplace problems is to suggest that if they don’t like it they should leave because “thousands” are lining up to take their jobs. He’s threatened to fire officers who go public with concerns.
It is clear that leadership and professional responsibility from the Governor’s office on down through the Corrections Secretary and more than likely to the former head of Lincoln Hills have been shockingly lacking toward staff and inmates, no doubt fueled at least in part by heavily politicized, anti-union sentiment. Further, relatively recent history surrounding this case has shown that not even complaints or enquiries from lawmakers and judges could penetrate the culture of blatant disregard and contempt toward those residing in and working at the Lincoln Hills facility. There are heads that deserve to roll.
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