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Broken promises, violent consequences

About the investigation: Evers fails to lead on Lincoln Hills

Gov. Tony Evers campaigned on shutting down Lincoln Hills School for Boys, the state’s serious juvenile offender prison, The Democrat hammered his predecessor, insisting Republican Gov. Scott Walker had failed to take action. On the campaign trail Evers declared Wisconsin needed “responsible leaders who are more focused about solving problems and protecting lives than winning elections.”

Two and a half years after Evers took office, things have gotten a lot worse inside the walls of Lincoln Hills, according to documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin in an open records request, and the governor has repeatedly argued to delay the closing of the juvenile detention centers.

While Evers and Republicans have fought over funding to replace Lincoln Hills and the Copper Lake School for Girls with regional detention centers, the governor is ultimately responsible for the safety and security of the institutions. Lincoln Hills staffers say Evers’ Department of Corrections has swept worsening conditions under the rug.

Under Governor Evers:

* Sexual misconduct incidents soared 75 percent at Lincoln Hills.

* Youth-staff battery increased 177 percent.

* Group disturbances up 158 percent.

* Staff injuries up an astounding 4,700 percent.

* Staff vacancy rates are at 32 percent

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — In early March, a staff member at Wisconsin’s troubled prison for serious juvenile offenders called up state Sen. Mary Felzkowski’s office. She warned Felzkowski’s legislative aide that if something isn’t done quickly someone will die.

The staff member — who is not identified — said a gang of young inmates had attacked another youth at Lincoln Hills School for Boys, according to records obtained by Empower Wisconsin through an open records request.

“It was devastating and awful and she felt helpless,” the record of the conversation states. “She feels she has failed the parents of that boy, and (imagines) if it was her son …” At that point, according to the document, the female employee “starts sobbing so hard she is hyper-ventilating.”

The attack occurred in the library of the juvenile detention facility, located about 30 miles north of Wausau. Seven kids broke in and assaulted another boy “who was barring them from entering,” another Lincoln Hills staffer told Felzkowski’s office. The Republican senator is from Irma, where Lincoln Hills and the adjacent Copper Lake School for girls are located.

Increasingly violent incidents have become all too routine at the 50-year-old facility that houses Wisconsin’s most violent teen offenders, despite Gov. Tony Evers’ campaign promise to protect the young inmates.

“I’ve worked at Lincoln Hills 7 1/2 years. Every day I face threats to my life, my co-workers lives’, and the safety of youth in our care,” Dave Tinker, a Lincoln Hills counselor, testified at an April Joint Finance Committee hearing in Rhinelander. “Violence isn’t just rising at Lincoln Hills; it has made the facility a powder keg.”

Tinker offered horrifying statistics. Over a six-month period in 2020, sexual misconduct soared 75 percent at Lincoln Hills. Youth-staff battery increased 177 percent. Group disturbances were up 158 percent. And staff injuries exploded — up an astounding 4,700 percent.

‘How in the hell did that happen?’

“Executive experience is a critical issue in this governor’s race — and to being governor. You only need to point to Lincoln Hills as an example. How the hell did that happen?” Evers said in launching his bid for governor in 2017.

Four years later, Lincoln Hills has been described by insiders as a “war zone,” where staff members fear for the safety of themselves and the kids they are sworn to protect.

They also fear the consequences of sharing their experiences publicly. Sources say many have been threatened, others have been disciplined or have lost their jobs for speaking out. Those who spoke to Felzkowski’s office shared information on condition of anonymity.

Some say there’s a cover-up of a bad situation made worse on the watch of Gov.Tony Evers.

As a gubernatorial candidate, Evers campaigned on urgently shutting down Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. As governor, he  has repeatedly tried  to push back the closing date — statutorily  mandated to occur last Thursday. And then blamed the legislature.

Dangerous past

Lincoln Hills School opened in 1970. It housed both male and female youth offenders for more than 20 years. In 2011, Copper Hills School for Girls opened at the Lincoln Hills site.

In 2015, Lincoln County Sheriff’s Dispatch records showed allegations of sexual abuse of juveniles, excessive use of force by staff, and youth attacks on guards, counselors, and other inmates, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story. The FBI conducted a broad investigation of the facilities spanning four years and concluded there was insufficient evidence that Lincoln Hills staff had repeatedly used excessive force. But there were several lawsuits.

During the FBI investigation reports of a standoff at Lincoln Hills hit the front pages and nightly news. Inmates climbed the building and threw rocks and pieces of metal at guards.

The deteriorating conditions prompted the state Legislature to pass a bipartisan bill creating new juvenile correctional facilities across the state, expanding the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center, which provides mental and behavioral health services, and repurposes Lincoln Hills & Copper Lake into an adult prison.

Walker signed the bill in March 2018.

“We are committed to improving long-term outcomes for juveniles and staff in our correctional facilities,” Walker said. “We thank county officials, members of the judiciary, and lawmakers from both parties for their efforts on this bill.”

The bipartisan effort didn’t matter to those who had their sights set on taking out Walker in the November election. Then-candidate Evers and the press continued to pound Walker on Lincoln Hills.

Evers hit Walker for not visiting the detention center.

“You can’t manage an agency, let alone address the catastrophe that now is Lincoln Hills, without even talking with the kids and staff that so desperately need help,” Evers said in a statement. “When a building is burning, does the fire chief watch from afar as it burns down? No — a good chief takes charge, gets in there and puts the fire out.’”

It was noted at the time that, Evers was one of the fire chiefs, so to speak. He was secretary of the Department of Public Instruction. Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake include schools for the juvenile offenders. Evers had not visited the facility either in his nearly decade on the job. He shrugged off the charge, saying DPI wasn’t in charge of Lincoln Hills, the Department of Corrections was. And Walker was in charge of the DOC.

While Evers did make an appearance at the juvenile facilities in his first few weeks of  office, he told reporters he would not make time to speak with them “before, during, or after his tour.” He has yet to return to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.

Evers’ slow-walk

When he took office, Evers almost immediately began to temper expectations the facility would close by January 2021, as the original law was written. After his tour, he suddenly decided the state would need “more time and money” to close Lincoln Hills but  didn’t provide specifics. He then told lawmakers he wanted to push back the closure to 2023 and has recently sought to extend the deadline to 2024.

Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) pointed out the interesting turn of events.

“They beat Gov. Walker up on this thing, left and right, every moment. If it’s (open) one day longer than it needs to be, that’s too long,” Van Wanggaard told the Associated Press in early 2019.

In March of that year, Evers announced the Department of Corrections planned to build two new juvenile facilities in Milwaukee and Outagamie counties to house serious juvenile offenders when Lincoln Hills closes. He wanted to bond to build the projects. The Republican-controlled Legislature balked at the costly proposal, which would have hiked the state’s debt payments and presented legal challenges for the state.

Knowing Evers was not going to close the youth correctional facilities by January 2021, the Legislature extended the deadline to July 1, 2021. The date has come and gone, potentially at the peril of more lawsuits against the state.

Meanwhile, the violence and disorder didn’t stop at Lincoln Hills. In September 2019, 26 inmates were involved in five incidents in two days. A tactical unit from an adult prison had to be called in to restore order.

Despite signing a state budget in July 2019 with nearly $190 million marked for a juvenile corrections transition plan, Evers continued to lobby for extending the closing date. The Legislature bolstered the funding again several months later.

Court orders and disorder

A monitor’s report earlier this year found “vast improvements” have been made at Lincoln Hills since a court ordered the periodic checkups in 2019. That report could not be farther from the truth, according to Sean Daley, staff representative for AFSCME.

“There’s not a time in history where a statement would be more untrue for workers than today,” he said during the JFC hearing. Daley did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, Evers’ Corrections officials have shied away from any discipline, insiders say.

Lincoln Hills staff members in their reports have told Felzkowski’s office that:

— “Some nights, groups of youth sneak out and wander around the facility looking to fight .. each other or a staff member they come across.”

— “Staff are told to just stay out of their way and/or try to bribe the kids back to their cottage (residential quarters) and bargain with them.”

— “The grounds are now almost routinely covered in glass”

— “Female staff no longer feel safe walking by themselves from area to area and wait to be escorted or for a buddy to also walk with them after incidents where boys hide around the corner in a hallway.”

— “This no longer feels like the workplace it once was and almost feels like a war zone.”

Silencing the whistleblowers

On the campaign trail, Evers blamed Walker for failing to take action, declaring Wisconsin needs “responsible leaders who are more focused about solving problems and protecting lives than winning elections.”

“How many kids have been abused during the five years Walker failed to act?” Evers said in a statement at the time. “Now he wants us to believe the same people who caused the Lincoln Hills mess are going to fix it.”

As the Democrat launches his re-election bid, Evers’ lack of action and his diminished sense of urgency should have Wisconsinites asking the same questions of the governor. The people dealing with the war zone inside the walls of Lincoln Hills certainly are.

But asking questions in the Evers’ DOC is dangerous, staff members say.

One Lincoln Hills employee said she was afraid to report any problems because staff have been repeatedly and consistently intimidated. She said Ron Hermes, Evers’ Juvenile Corrections administrator, showed up in late February for the first time in months and  shrugged off staff concerns.

“Hermes made an offhand comment that he had to be there “to deal with a bunch of whiners,” the document states. Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Superintendent Klint Trevino rarely comes into the facility, multiple staff members said.

Asked about an upcoming meeting with DOC Secretary Kevin Carr in March, the staffer was “incredibly apprehensive” about raising concerns publicly. She worried the secretary would tell Hermes and Trevino the names of the staffers who attended the outside meeting.

Another employee said staff are disciplined for calling an event a riot at the facility.

“Lincoln Hills used to have an open-doors policy regarding reporting, with staff able to talk to management one on one. Now, staff have to talk to peer supporters if there are any issues,” a staff member told Felzkowski’s aide, according to the records. “There are consequences for reporting anything though, such as staff being investigated, given extended hours of work, and being reassigned to more dangerous parts of the facility. If the report is really bad, it can lead to being fired.”

Staff told Felzkowski’s office that they file complaints through a tracker system. They say very few receive a response.

Even more troubling, reported sexual assaults appear to be routinely swept under the rug.

“When assaults are reported, they are classified as ‘disruptive conduct’ because that seems like less concerning language,” the Senate office report states.

DOC spokesman John Beard said DOC’s  Staff Assault dashboards for the Division of Juvenile Corrections currently only has data through February of Fiscal Year (FY) 2021. “(B)ut extrapolating the data for the remainder of the fiscal year would lead to a FY 2021 number that is approximately flat compared to the previous two fiscal years, whether looking at staff assaults as a whole or solely at battery incidents (the different things recorded as assaults are defined on the dashboards),” he said in an email response to Empower Wisconsin’s questions.

“DOC would always like those numbers to be lower,” Beard said in an email response to Empower Wisconsin’s questions.

But the statistics showing disturbingly high increases in violent incidents are drawn from the Department’s tracking system, according to a Vote of No Confidence document from AFSCME Council 32, the union that represents corrections workers at the youth detention centers.

“This vote of “NO CONFIDENCE” recognizes the unparalleled failure of the current LHS and DJC administration to take necessary steps to maintain and promote an environment that is safe for employees and juvenile offenders, alike,” the union declares.

The data compare the first six months of 2020 to the latter half of the year, and “represent an accurate depiction of the increase in the identified incident criteria,” AFSCME notes.

Lincoln Hills’ union rep asserts “there is NO CONFIDENCE by the undersigned that the current administration will improve or eradicate the violence, harassment, and abuse endured daily by staff.” 

And staff members say many incidents are going unreported.

They are leaving in droves. Felzkowski says the vacancy rate was 25 percent in January. It’s now at 32 percent.

“They’re sticking their heads in the sand,” the senator said when asked if she believes there’s a cover-up in the administration.

Tinker, the counselor who called Lincoln Hills a powder keg, testified that management’s inability to maintain a safe work environment has exacerbated an “already dangerous environment and made it potentially deadly.”

He’s urging the Legislature to find the funding to close the youth prison and open the regional facilities, but waiting until 2024 is not tenable.

Playing politics

State Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), co-author of the bipartisan legislation aimed at closing the juvenile correctional facilities, said a big portion of the responsibility to get the projects done lies with the governor’s office.

“If he would just put politics aside and say, ‘Come to the table, let’s compromise and get this done for the youth,’ I think both sides would really try to work together,” Schraa said. “I’m not seeing that as a focus and that was one of his big campaign promises.”

What happened to all of those Evers’ campaign promises?

“He totally lied. Totally lied,”  Felzkowski said.

For the people on the frontlines of the Lincoln Hills war zone, anxiety is growing. Tragedy seems to lurk behind every corner.

“…(T)hose of us working there in the meantime feel that we are forgotten and no one is listening to us because it won’t matter in a couple of years (when, or if, Lincoln Hills finally shuts down). But someone will die. One of us will die,” a staffer warned.

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8 thoughts on “Broken promises, violent consequences

  • What’s happening within those is walls is a microcosm of what happens in schools all over the country. The raw material that goes into one of these mills is self-conscious meat. The output is the same, but reconfigured into a product that can both consume and be consumed. Few understand how these human factories operate, how heavily we depend on them, and how critical they are to our existence. What goes on in them may get ugly, but they are perfectly designed and can’t be improved any further. Nature can’t exist without suffering, either.

  • I think it’s worth mentioning that after the last sexual assault that occurred at the facility; that female staff member was put on post with the youth that had assaulted her that very same day. I was so disgusted I almost put my notice in on the spot. That decision bothers me to this day.

  • When you are struggling, whether it’s problems at work, low self-esteem, conflicts in your relationships, etc., it feels much better to funnel your negative energy into blaming someone else — such as Tony Evers — than to confront your own role in your problems. It keeps the terror at bay in the short term, not in the long. Who owns you? It’s a rhetorical question.

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