7 Investigates: Sen. Tom Tiffany's record of Lincoln Hills policies

Published: Feb. 13, 2020 at 7:57 PM CST
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The special primary to narrow down the candidates for the 7th Congressional District is less than a week away. Of the candidates, only republican Sen. Tom Tiffany has served in a legislative capacity.

He is a member of the joint finance committee and voted during discussions yesterday about the closure of Lincoln Hills and its replacement facilities.

Sen. Tiffany has served on the legislature for the past decade; one term serving in the Assembly in 2010 and the rest in the Senate. He represents the 12th senate district which includes the state's only youth prison, Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Schools.

During his time in the legislature, youth at the facilities have been physically harmed because of excessive use of force by some staff who were determined to be improperly trained. There also have been cases of staff sexually assaulting youth. The facility has also seen poor management, recording, and archiving of documents and incidents at the facility. There are reports of youth attacking other youth as well as youth attacking staff. The facility has been investigated by the FBI, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of youth harmed at the facility and won that lawsuit requiring the state to settle, and a law passed requiring the facility to close altogether.

Wisconsin Eye senior producer, Steve Walters in 2016 interviewed Sen. Tiffany asking, "You've heard the calls from some democratic leaders to close those facilities, your response?"

Sen. Tiffany responded, "That would be the wrong thing to do."

Two years later in March, right before the gubernatorial election, Governor Scott Walker rolled out a law to close the facility, which Sen. Tiffany supported and is now working with democrats to make plans.

During an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio in January, 2018, Kate Archer Kent asked how the governor's plan will address the troubles at the facility with youth acting badly and staff using excessive force.

"We've heard from Rep. Goyke over the last number of months. He's talked about using the Missouri model, breaking this up into smaller cohorts of young people and having five facilities here in Wisconsin and that's what the governor is going to do and hopefully, that will be effective," Sen. Tiffany responded. "There's [sic] other states that believe they have the data to show that this has been a more effective model."

Many of Sen. Tiffany's decisions regarding the facility have changed over the years following along party lines. In 2011 he voted in favor of Act 10 and Act 32. One took away unions' collective bargaining rights, the other consolidated all juvenile correctional facilities, placing all juveniles at Lincoln Hills, the opposite of what the plan is today.

"There was almost a $20 million deficit in juvenile facilities, so it was chosen to consolidate it all," he justified in the 2016 Wisconsin Eye interview.

Several Lincoln Hills staff 7 Investigates interviewed in 2017, including Pandora Lobacz who was a teacher at Ethan Allen before it consolidated and was also beaten by a youth at Lincoln Hills, have blamed both Act 10 and the consolidation for creating the problems at Lincoln Hills. They said it has led to bigger staff shortages and extreme overtime problems, along with taking youth away from their home communities and supports.

In 2017 after a judge ordered staff to roll back and ultimately eliminate certain practices like locking youth in their rooms for extended periods of time, pepper spray, and shackling use, staff said they feared for their safety and the safety of other youth.

"Employees have to feel safe," Sen. Tiffany told 7 Investigates in 2017 after sending a letter with republican Rep. Mary Felzkowski to the judge asking him to reverse his decision. "Under Judge Peterson's order, he's emboldened a few of the youth, not most of them, but a few of the youth and they are creating real problems as a result of that."

The judge did not reverse his decision.

On Wednesday, Sen. Tiffany voted along party lines at the joint finance committee meeting. He voted in favor of a republican revision to grant plans, which approved plans to fund all the counties taking on county-based facilities except Milwaukee's plan. He also voted down funding two cite plans for high-security facilities in Brown and Milwaukee counties.

Sen. Tiffany did not return our request for an interview Thursday.