Wisconsin juvenile prisons struggle to change course

This Dec. 10, 2015, aerial file photo, shows Lincoln Hills juvenile prison in Irma. 


Lincoln Hills School for Boys is a juvenile prison that has been plagued by stories of prisoner abuse, violent incidents and prisoner unrest, with new drama unfolding in recent weeks.

Democratic lawmakers like Rep. Evan Goyke have said the institution needs to be closed or turned into an adult institution, and a regional model for juvenile offenders adapted.

Republicans “haven’t really latched onto that,” said Journal Sentinel reporter Patrick Marley, noting that a regional system with multiple facilities could be pricey.

“That could be very expensive,” he said. “But Lincoln Hills as it is now is very expensive. And if these lawsuits continue to go poorly for the state, they’re going to get really expensive for taxpayers.” 

Marley broke the original story about the state investigation into Lincoln Hills. He appeared on a recent episode of the political talk show “Capital City Sunday” to discuss the latest developments in the story.

Last year, host Greg Neumann noted, stories on Lincoln Hills focused on the abuse of inmates, including an inmate who had his foot slammed in a door by a guard, and later had to have toes amputated. In the last few weeks, the story has focused on inmate violence toward workers at the facility.

That includes the assault of prison teacher Pandora Lobacz. One student attacked the teacher, punching her in the face, knocking her out and sending her to the hospital.

Previously, inmates in solitary confinement had to be tethered to desks or tables for classes, Marley said, but after inmates, represented by the ACLU of Wisconsin and Juvenile Law Center, filed a lawsuit, a federal judge said Lincoln Hills had to limit the use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and handcuffs.

Gov. Scott Walker’s administration said that’s been difficult to follow because of “unrest” at the school. 

Attorneys for the inmates argue that the administration’s implementation is the problem, Marley said, arguing that there needs to be more programming and staff at the facility.

“Advocates for inmates say, 'The state needs this fundamental change, and if they cannot come up with that change, they need to close the place down,'” he said.

Last Sunday, an inmate injured three guards in a scuffle as they tried to take him to solitary confinement. While this was going on, another inmate broke a window in his cell door. He also broke a plastic chair and threw it out the window at a guard, striking him in the face. That guard and another were injured in the incident, and altogether five guards went to the hospital.

“I’m 1,000 percent sure it’s going to happen again,” Marley quoted one staff member as saying after the incident. “What I’m scared of is nothing’s going to get done until we have a staff member killed.”

Marley also recently reported on an incident that occurred in August, where four inmates climbed onto the roof of one of prison dorm buildings. They broke off pipes and were “swinging them around like bats,” Marley said, and throwing rocks and shingles. Staff tried to use pepper spray to get them down but bad weather didn’t allow it.

“These kinds of things the staff say are increasingly happening and increasingly difficult to contain,” Marley said.

And these complaints, while increased, are not new. Staff has been complaining about safety concerns for at least five years, Marley said. The school is also currently under a criminal investigation looking into alleged abuse of its prisoners. 

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But the state corrections secretary and DOC officials “insist the facility is safe and remains that way,” Marley said.

Neumann said that it seemed like workers at Lincoln Hills was increasingly willing to talk to Marley, although many did so on the condition of anonymity. Marley said he thought Lobacz’s story was encouraging others to come forward.

“We’ve always gotten a lot of tips about Lincoln Hills. They’ve really flooded in in the last few weeks,” he said.

Some lawmakers say the troubles with Lincoln Hills started when the Ethan Allen School for Boys in Waukesha County was closed in 2011 in response to a decreasing juvenile prisoner population. The move sent the juvenile offenders at Ethan Allen, many who were from southeast Wisconsin, to Lincoln Hills in the far north of the state.

“I think all sides would agree that there are a lot more problems and challenges when you have inmates who are hundreds of miles from their family,” he said.

While Marley said he thinks many people would like to create a more regional juvenile prison system, “it’s just hard to sort of turn the ship to do something like that."

Still, the current system is expensive, he said. Many inmates at Lincoln Hills are held at county expense, which Marley said “dramatically increased” in the last budget from about $300 to almost $400 per day, per inmate.

“(Counties) can often find a way to keep them locally for way cheaper, and as the price goes up and the troubles continue at Lincoln Hills, they’re increasingly doing that,” he said, further driving up the per-prisoner cost.

Walker has never visited the administration as governor, and told Marley a year ago that he didn’t think he would get a true view of what the prison looked like on a visit. State superintendent and gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers recently criticized Walker for never visiting the facility, but has also never visited the school at Lincoln Hills in his capacity as the head of the Department of Public Instruction.