Youth Prison Investigation (copy)

Inmates at Lincoln Hills School for Boys allegedly tried to electrocute a guard.

MARK HOFFMAN, MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

Inmates at the state’s youth prison allegedly conspired to electrocute a guard last month but police were never notified of the incident, according to sources with knowledge of the event.

The episode is the latest revelation of violent acts against staff members at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, the state prison in Irma for the most serious young offenders in Wisconsin.

The reports come in the wake of a federal judge’s order that the prison reduce its use of restraints, solitary confinement and pepper spray to manage inmate behavior.

On Sept. 25, a group of male inmates in one of the prison’s housing units dipped the cord of an electric fan into a cup of water, poured water in a wall outlet and spilled some water on the floor near the fan, according to sources with direct knowledge of the incident but who do not have permission to speak publicly.

Many of the inmates in the unit then asked the guard to plug the fan into the wall outlet. The guard would have done so if an inmate had not, at the last minute, warned the guard not to plug in the fan.

“As he was going down the hallway toward the fan, (the inmate) who earned a gold star in my book said ‘No! No! Don’t — it’s wet!,’ ” said Douglas Curtis, a former Lincoln Hills guard who retired last fall after 20 years and remains a representative of the prison staff’s labor union. “He could have died.”

Prison administrators did not notify police of the incident, Lt. Timothy Fisher of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday.

The guard also wasn’t immediately moved to a different unit away from the inmates who allegedly devised the plan a day after the guard punished them for refusing to obey orders by requiring them to stay in their cells for one hour, according to the sources and Curtis.

One source also said the inmates taunted the guard and told him they hoped he would be electrocuted.

Prison administrators looked into the incident, but could not determine specific culprits to punish, according to the sources and Curtis.

“No discipline … no nothing,” Curtis said of the outcome.

Several lawsuits filed

In the last week, inmates have punched two other staff members, sending them both to the hospital — raising questions about the safety of staff at the facility.

The injuries come as the prison has been the target of lawsuits brought by current and former inmates alleging staff there have abused them through keeping inmates in isolation for weeks at a time, excessive pepper spraying and use of mechanical restraints.

Those allegations surfaced amid an investigation that began nearly three years ago and is now headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In the wake of the investigation, the Department of Corrections has required prison guards to be properly trained in use of force and wear body cameras, required trained medical staff to dispense medication and required DOC officials to review every injury inmates receive.

Meanwhile, in the class-action lawsuit against the prison, a federal judge has ordered prison staff members to reduce or eliminate use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and restraints.

In a separate case, the state last year settled with a former inmate whose toes were severely injured after a prison guard slammed a door on his foot a year earlier.

Emboldened inmates

Current and former staff members say the lawsuits and the federal order have had a chilling effect on their abilities to manage behavior in the facility and have emboldened some inmates.

Last week, a teacher at the facility was assaulted by an inmate much larger than her, sending her to a hospital. Another female staff member was punched on Monday and was taken to a hospital with injuries, according to Tristan Cook, spokesman for DOC.

DOC officials have notified the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office in both instances, he said.

Pandora Kay Lobacz, the assaulted teacher who has worked in the state’s juvenile corrections system for 24 years, posted on her Facebook page Monday that there are several employees of the prison who are out on medical leave for “being battered or trying to protect youth from beating each other.”

Cook said there are 16 staff members on leave for “work-related issues.”

Lobacz wrote that after the federal judge ordered DOC staff to limit pepper spray, solitary confinement and restraints, “violent, dangerous students” are intentionally trying to provoke staff in order to sue the state.

Two Republican lawmakers who represent the area of the facility this week asked the federal judge to reverse his order in light of the recently injuries to staff.

Litscher: ‘Safe place’

But DOC Secretary Jon Litscher reiterated on Thursday to reporters that the facility is safe for staff — despite the injuries.

“I think Lincoln Hills-Copper Lakes, with the training that’s involved and the type of the activities that we do with working with our youth, that it is a safe place for staff and offenders,” Litscher said. “We will continue to do the best in programming that will allow these young people to come back to their communities in a respectful and responsible manner.”

Litscher visited the youth prison on Wednesday, Cook said, and spoke to staff about staff safety and institution climate. Litscher and DOC officials then met Thursday to discuss ways to enhance safety, he said.

Cook said DOC “take(s) staff assaults very seriously,” and that each assault is reviewed weekly by Litscher and other DOC officials.

“During these briefings, we identify how we can make changes to make our facilities as safe as possible,” Cook said.

But another staff member at the youth prison, who has been out of work since the summer after being punched in the head 10 times — causing a concussion, vision problems and memory loss — said guards feel like they can’t defend themselves.

“It’s not safe,” the staff member said. “I fear for my life and I’m doing everything I can to not go back to that place.”

Another said the effect of the federal order to reduce the amount of punitive discipline the guards may use has not been replaced with effective alternatives to safely handle misbehaving and violent inmates.

“This used to be the best job I had for a lot of years,” the staff member said. “I still like working with the kids but they’ve taken all the tools we had to keep ourselves safe.”

The employees asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.