Groups: Report shows continued problems at juvenile prison

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IRMA, Wis. (WSAW) -- Groups that sued the state over conditions at Wisconsin's juvenile prison say a new report ordered by a federal judge shows that "alarming and harmful conditions remain."

The report was filed Monday in federal court by a monitor ordered by the court to provide updates on compliance with an order to end the use of pepper spray and nearly eliminate the use of solitary confinement.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center, which represented inmates, filed a class action lawsuit over conditions at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile prisons.

The groups said in a release Monday that the monitor's report shows the prisons are still relying on pepper spray for nonviolent incidents. They say that while there's a reduced reliance on solitary confinement, some inmates remain in isolation for weeks.

The report shows the youth prison to be in partial compliance with settlement. The only piece considered fully non-compliant was ensuring juveniles' rooms were suicide resistant and protrusion free. The monitor, Theresa Abreu, found rooms to be unorganized and dirty, sheets covered areas of many of the rooms, which would make it difficult for staff to see inside. There was also graffiti etched on the glass, also making staff visibility difficult.

The report confirmed stories staff have shared with 7 Investigates over the years, that they fear for their safety at work. For staff at Lincoln Hills, 59-percent said they fear for their safety, and 46-percent said the same at Copper Lake. The national average in the field is only 25-percent.

When asked what training staff would like to receive, many of the ones listed were trainings the Department of Corrections has said it was already providing.

When interviewing juveniles, they told the monitor there was a lack of meaningful programming, there are not enough staff consistently engaging with youth, and that staff showed favoritism. The monitor said she agreed with the juvniles' assessments. She said some of them were able to also pick out staff members who were regularly fair, consistent, and caring, but there were other staff members identified who were not.

Abreu was understanding in her report, saying it is unreasonable to expect staff to actively engage with youth, participate in training, and understand and change practices if they are regularly working double shifts.

Melissa Baldauff, a spokesperson for Gov. Tony Evers' office said in a statement to 7 Investigates, "Criminal justice reform—particularly in our youth justice system—is a critical priority for Gov. Evers. His visit to Lincoln Hills last week was an important first step. The report released today confirms the governor’s belief that much more must be done to improve safety and wellness for the students and staff at Lincoln Hills. He looks forward to working with Department of Corrections staff, community advocates, legislators, and local leaders on bipartisan, common sense solutions.”

After his review, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said, “I know we can do better. However, I am proud of the work our staff has done so far and appreciate their cooperation and dedication through this process.”

According to the DOC's deputy communications director, Clare Hendricks, both the DOC and Division of Juvenile Corrections reviewed the monitor's report.

The statement goes on to say "DOC and DJC staff are committed to working with the monitor to identify and discover areas in which we can improve. Specifically, we are already taking steps to reduce the use of OC spray based on our internal OC reduction plan, which is supported by the monitor. That plan has been implemented and Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Schools for the past year."

"We support the idea that future services for youth should be provided in smaller, local facilities." it read. "The DOC continues to work with state and local partners to implement Act 185 and bring those facilities to fruition. The DOC recognizes the need to move beyond the past and embrace evidence-based best practices for youth in our care."

7 Investigates reached out to the DOC to hear from leaders who have been involved in the department prior to the Evers Administration, as well as the new DOC Secretary, who toured the facility with Gov. Evers Friday, but we have not heard back yet.

Youth Justice Milwaukee, a youth advocacy group that formed because of the problems at the prison also sent a statement from its co-founders founders Sharlen Moore and Jeff Roman.

“The conditions at Lincoln Hills remain unacceptable – and life-threatening -- to the young people who are locked up inside despite orders from a federal judge to improve," it reads. "The reality is no matter what a judge orders, youth prisons will never be safe for children. It is essential for the state to close the doors of this dangerous, abusive youth prison, and it’s a perfect example of why Wisconsin cannot turn around and open more harmful facilities to replace it. While Governor Evers’ recent visit shows his concern for the problems there, it’s clear we cannot wait until 2021 to close the youth prison – the youth who continue to be traumatized at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake cannot afford for us to wait.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.