By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Staff members at Lincoln Hills School for Boys, the state’s troubled juvenile offender prison, are leaving the job at an alarming pace. Union-represented employees say they’ve lost confidence “that the current administration will improve or eradicate the violence, harassment, and abuse endured daily by staff.”
The vacancy rate for staff, at 25 percent in January, was up to 32 percent recently, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Such turnover puts even more stress on staff members already overworked at a detention center that has seen incidents of violence escalate on Gov. Tony Evers’ watch.
Insider sources say Ron Hermes, administrator of the Department of Corrections Division of Juvenile Services, is a long-time Madison liberal disconnected from the realities of the northern Wisconsin youth prison. Hermes, who worked for Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and as an aide for former state Sen. Fred Risser, a Madison Democrat, has spent the last 17 years in state government bureaucracy.
In documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin, staff members say Hermes and Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Superintendent Klint Trevino have tried to sweep complaints under the rug.
One Lincoln Hills employee said she was afraid to report any problems because staff have been repeatedly and consistently intimidated. She said Hermes 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,’” a staff member reported to Felzkowski’s office. The superintendent rarely comes into the facility, multiple staff members said.
As Empower Wisconsin reported, violent incidents at the prison exploded in 2020.
* Sexual misconduct incidents soared 75 percent at Lincoln Hills.
* Youth-staff battery increased 177 percent.
* Group disturbances were up 158 percent.
* Staff injuries spiked an astounding 4,700 percent.
* Staff vacancy rates are at 32 percent
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 added.
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.
Lincoln Hills counselors and administration staff were invited to share their experiences with Sen Mary Felzkowski’s office. The employees asked that their names be removed from the public record for fear of retaliation. Empower Wisconsin obtained copies of their accounts through an open records request.
The following are some of the staff statements from the files:
A staffer who has been there for over 20 years states this is the first time they are afraid to go to work and are working remotely at the moment
A staffer broke down recently because for the first time, saying goodbye to his kids in the morning, for the first time in over a decade, the thought hit him that he doesn’t know if he will come home.
They are running out of usable buildings to house the kids, as several buildings are unusable and haven’t been repaired for months
This no longer feels like the workplace it once was and almost feels like a war zone
Multiple staff shared they have pleaded with the Superintendent to visit the facility — they’ll take whatever precautions he wants — he just needs to come. He won’t.
They submit complaints through a ‘JTracker’ program. Maybe 1 in 8 complaints ever receives a response. Can someone at headquarters see this instead?
Staff have asked the Superintendent to work out of the facility one or two days a week with them to get the picture of what it’s actually like. They haven’t heard back.
When there is an emergency there is no single leader making decisions
A female staffer … (said) she was heading to a cottage (inmate residential quarters) and a youth pinned her against the wall and groped her and said he wanted to do things to her she wouldn’t like. When she tried to tell the management she was told to go with this, they asked what she had done to provoke him or egg him on and press her repeatedly on did she really want this reported, wouldn’t that make it worse.
Department of Corrections Secretary-Designee Kevin Carr announced in August 2019 Hermes’ appointment as Division of Juvenile Corrections Administrator.
“To support Wisconsin’s youth, as well as the DJC employees who have committed their careers to serving our state, is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me,” Hermes said in a press release. “I am excited at the possibilities we have in front of us and look forward to tackling the challenges, as well.”
“The Lincoln Hills of 2020 is not the Lincoln Hills of 2015, not the Lincoln hills of even 2018, there have been a lot of changes that have taken place,” Hermes said in January 2020.
He’s right. It appears to be a much more violent place for inmates and staff.