MADISON – Conditions are worsening at Wisconsin’s youth lockup, with exhausted guards more frequently restraining teens at the Northwoods facility, according to a report released Monday.
Those held at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls aren’t receiving enough programming, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the vast majority say they aren’t treated with respect. Staff members, meanwhile, fear for their safety, according to the report by a court-ordered monitor for the troubled facility.
“There is a definite change in the overall atmosphere from the last visit (in the fall),” monitor Teresa Abreu wrote in her report. “Staff are clearly exhausted, frustrated and based on (internal) data and interviews, fear for their safety.”
The facility 30 miles north of Wausau has also been experiencing outbreaks of COVID-19, with 14 teens testing positive from September to November. Staff members are wearing masks, but few teens are, according to the report.
Guards are putting holds on teens or using handcuffs on them far above the national average, the report concluded. Abreu wrote that the lack of adequate programming at the facility was partially responsible for the overuse of restraints.
Lincoln Hills is supposed to deploy “care teams” to try to de-escalate situations, but in at least one case a team resolved a situation by restraining a teen — a tactic such teams are never supposed to use.
While the use of restraints is higher than it should be, staff have cut back on the use of isolating teens to their rooms. Nearly all recent room confinements were ended in under eight hours, the report found.
The report’s critical findings come as plans to close the facility remain stalled. Legislators from both parties passed a law pledging to shut down the campus by July, but lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers have since acknowledged they will miss that deadline and have no firm timeline for building new, smaller facilities to house teen offenders.
“This startling backslide in progress at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake only reinforces the notion that this facility must close, as was originally intended,” said a statement from Karyn Rotker, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said he is eager to close Lincoln Hills when possible and his team will work to make improvements at the facility in the meantime.
“Progress is not linear,” he said in a statement. “Not every report will be better than the last. It is easy to cherry-pick numbers out of a report, but the truth is this administration has made tremendous progress at Lincoln Hills School/Copper Lake School the past two years.”
The ACLU and Juvenile Law Center sued the state over conditions at Lincoln Hills in 2017, resulting in an agreement to overhaul the facility. In the months before the agreement, lawmakers said they would close the facility and the state reached an $18.9 million settlement with a teen who was severely brain-damaged after staff were slow to respond to her suicide attempt.
Like adult correctional facilities, Lincoln Hills has long struggled to maintain adequate staffing. As of this month, one in four guard positions were unfilled, according to the report.
Staff feel unsafe, teens feel unrespected
More than 80% of the staff told Abreu they believed Lincoln Hills is unsafe, with 69% saying they feared for their safety. Nearly 80% said they didn’t believe they had the authority to discipline the teens in the way they thought they should be disciplined.
For their part, the teens said they weren’t treated appropriately. Just 7% said they were given respect and 4% said they considered the staff to be good role models.
At the heart of the problems at the facility are a lack of meaningful activities for the teens, the report found. Leaders and staff need to provide the teens with more to do, particularly during evenings and weekends — tasks made more difficult during the pandemic.
“The Monitor remains very concerned over the continuing lack of adequate and meaningful activities and programming for youth which leads to extreme boredom and can result in anti-social behavior,” Abreu wrote.
Juvenile Law Center attorney Kate Burdick in a statement said the state should find ways to return the 70 or so teenagers at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake to their homes.
“Despite the progress that the facilities have made since the lawsuit was filed, the recent regression we’ve seen there is further proof that locking youth up, and doing so far from their families, isn’t just or productive,” she said in her statement.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.