Lincoln Hills latest monitor report shows both significant improvement and persistent problems

Published: Oct. 28, 2020 at 3:27 PM CDT
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IRMA, Wis. (WSAW) - The latest report that monitors Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Schools' progress in complying with a federal judge’s court-ordered changes found significant improvement at the facility as well as persistent problems.

In 2018, a federal judge ordered the Department of Corrections to make changes at the facility after the American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center filed a lawsuit in 2017 over conditions at the facility. They asked a judge to limit solitary confinement, the use of mechanical restraints and pepper spray, arguing their continued use amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

The DOC came to a settlement in January of 2018 committing to ending the use of pepper spray on inmates in the next year (2019), and significantly scale back the use of solitary confinement as a punishment in the next 7 months (July of 2018), ending it in the next 10 months (October of 2018). In the agreement, the DOC said effective immediately, it will not use solitary confinement as a punishment for more than 7 days. Within 7 months of the date of the order, “punitive room confinement shall be limited to three days.” After 10 months it says “punitive confinement shall be prohibited.”

The latest report from the monitor, Teresa Abreu, showed that pepper spray use has been eliminated. Punitive confinement has been reduced, though she noted there is a lack of documentation around this issue that needs to be addressed. She found mechanical restraints are still being used at Lincoln Hills, but not at Copper Lake noting that it needs to be better documented and reduced along with creating quality assurance measures and policies and procedures around its use. Youth also did not complain about excessive use of force by staff.

She also noted the facilities overall are very clean, especially compared to her last visit and graffiti has been cleared. Staff is also doing regular searches of youths' rooms and units for contraband, which she said was positive.

There are several items she mentioned are persistent problems that the DOC needs to prioritize and address. That includes a lack of programming for youth so they do not have so much idol time, especially during the pandemic when classes are virtual and there are more physical restrictions on youth. Youth told her they were bored.

The monitor for Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Schools noted a persistent problem is a lack of...
The monitor for Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Schools noted a persistent problem is a lack of programming for youth at the facility causes youth to act out. She said addressing this needs to be a priority.(Monitor Report)

She asked the youth about the recent incident this summer where the youth ran around outside, climbed buildings, and damaged property. In response, they said they did it “because they are really bored and have nothing to do.”

“If additional programming - and especially culturally competent programming - is not available in the vicinity of this facility, that remains a serious concern and one that should lead to an increased sense of urgency to move youth closer to locations where such programs and services are available,” she stated.

The DOC has approved a programming director position, but it has not been filled yet.

Youth also mentioned they missed being physically in school and she recommended that youth go back to school in a hybrid or in-person model as soon as they can safely do so as many youths noted they do not learn well in the virtual environment.

She said the common complaint from youth aside from being bored was that they believed “staff did not care about them and did not interact with them and staff ‘go through the motions.’”

They also mentioned the items in their incentive program were not good, including mentioning stale food. “The issues with canteen have been going on long enough and it is unacceptable that the issues with canteen have not been fixed to date," she stated. "The challenges with canteen is a management issue (unit staff accountability) and external with the vendor/business office.”

She also noted the items need to be increased and be more meaningful to youth to help incentivize good behavior.

Another persistent issue that 7 Investigates has reported on for years is staff being concerned about their safety and that they cannot control youth, feeling their tools have been taken away from them with this court order.

Staff told her “that the boys were becoming increasingly aggressive.”

“It should also be noted that any improvements in structured and meaningful activities to better engage youth will also have a positive impact on staff well-being and help reduce their frustrations and anxiety levels as well,” Abreu said. “In turn, this enhances the staff and youth interactions and works to foster improved relationships, awareness and de-escalation of behaviors when necessary. As mentioned previously, staff are very frustrated with a lack of sanctions to hold youth accountable as well as a lack of incentives that will foster improved behaviors as youth focus on earning the incentives and rewards. Improving the behavior management system and improving the rewards and incentives will have a profound impact on the overall behavior and atmosphere issues that are driving the main issues that are frustrating both staff and youth.”

She said staff wellness needs to be a priority as it “continues to impact the overall culture and atmosphere” at the facility, adding that their anxiety seems to still be high.

Staffing numbers in some areas is also an issue, with teacher vacancies continuing to be high. She also said psychological staff need to have weekend shifts to help support youth. A mental health specialist position is also on a hiring freeze due to COVID-19, but she urged that position needs to be filled to help the facility with some of the court orders.

7 Investigates has reached out to the DOC and it is working to answer questions related to this report.

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