Lincoln Hills entrance

The entrance to the state's youth prison in Irma is decorated for the holidays in this 2016 file photo. 

Inmates at the state’s youth prison have kicked in glass windows, stolen pepper spray and threatened to rape female staff members since a federal judge told state Department of Corrections officials to make drastic changes in how they manage prisoners’ behavior, records show.

Ten staff members at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma told Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, through interviews with his staff that they fear for their lives and that the facility is no longer safe.

The comments came after U.S. Judge James Peterson ordered prison officials in July not to keep inmates in solitary confinement around the clock for weeks, not to excessively pepper spray inmates and not to put them in shackles regularly.

“Kids now believe they have nothing to lose,” one staff member told Tiffany’s aides.

“I am afraid of getting killed by an inmate,” said another staff member who recently resigned.

The staff interviews were summarized and compiled by Tiffany’s staff and released to the Wisconsin State Journal under the state’s open records law. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel first reported on the records.

The federal order was issued as part of a class-action lawsuit brought by current and former inmates represented by the American Civil Liberties Union-Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center, alleging that the staff at the prison have abused the inmates with the practices Peterson ordered changed.

But the staff members’ accounts of the atmosphere at the facility raise questions about whether staff were trained to manage behavior in other ways, to replace the practices the order ended.

“Within days after the decision, the environment has made a complete change,” one staff member said. “Employees always had to question their safety but now they feel unsafe. Management has expressed that their hands are tied and they are unable to do much after the decision.”

One staff member, who has been out of work on medical leave for more than a month, said an inmate once stole a can of pepper spray and then hit him in the head with it. Tristan Cook, a Department of Corrections spokesman, confirmed that an inmate took the spray but said there was “no indication” that a staff member suffered a head injury.

Another staff member told Tiffany’s office she is “afraid the kids may take over” and that during one incident inmates busted multiple windows and doors and used pepper spray on staff. Cook confirmed two inmates “damaged state property within a housing unit.”

Worse for women

For female staff members, it can be worse, according to the records and State Journal interviews with sources who have direct knowledge of the prison’s atmosphere but are not allowed to speak publicly.

One female staff member told Tiffany that every day for a week, she was “verbally sexually assaulted.” She said a group of male inmates will yell out their windows and describe in explicit detail how they would sexually assault her.

“The staff in this building are dealing with far bigger problems than me being verbally assaulted so I no longer stop and ask for help,” she said.

Cook said staff are encouraged to submit reports of such incidents.

In addition, the State Journal reported this week that inmates conspired to electrocute another guard in September, and prison administrators did not call the police about the incident nor punish the inmates.

Two other staff members reported being assaulted in recent weeks.

Legislators respond

Tiffany and Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, represent the area of the prison and wrote a letter to Peterson asking that he reverse his order.

“The DOC, under the leadership of Secretary (Jon) Litscher, is making a good faith effort to implement your Order. Based on correspondence from staff at LHS … your Order is not working. Your Order has emboldened some youth offenders to the point they are attacking both staff and other youth,” the two wrote.

The order is part of a lawsuit that is one of several filed alleging abuse of inmates, and comes amid a nearly three-year investigation now headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into how staff have treated inmates.

The two lawmakers wrote Peterson has “mentioned frequently the constitutional rights youth have at LHS. We agree they have important constitutional protections but what are you going to do about the constitutional rights of the dedicated public servants at LHS when they are beaten and harassed by youth who know a judge will take their side?”

But the lawyers that represent the dozens of inmates who allege they have suffered permanent harm at the youth prison because of its practices of heavily using solitary confinement and pepper spray say the lawmakers are missing the point: that prison administrators could find safe ways to manage the institution that also do not harm inmates.

“It is stunning that state legislators would ask a federal judge to walk back a ruling compelled by the U.S. Constitution. State officials cannot treat children in violation of the mandates of the 8th and 14th amendments, yet that that is precisely the outcome sought by this letter,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center. “The fact that corrections staff at LHS can think of no other way to manage and rehabilitate the youth in their care is their failing, not the federal court’s.”

Democrats also pointed out that Tiffany and Felzkowski, who sit on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, voted against Democratic proposals to reduce overtime, increase training and add staff during the budget-writing process.

Site’s closing sought

Meanwhile, some staff at the prison are seeking a different remedy altogether: closing the facility.

“We want to be closed down,” one staff member said in an interview with the State Journal. “This has been broken for so long.”

The staff member described the facility as a “place that is out of control.”

“They’re not going to protect me and I can’t defend myself,” the staff member said. “The youth run the institution — it’s a prison where the inmates run the prison.”

Doug Curtis, who retired from the prison last fall after 20 years there, said the facility should close or be converted into a prison for adults.

“Can we put Humpty-Dumpty back together again? I don’t think so,” Curtis said. “They’re putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound.”

A spokesman for the DOC did not immediately have a response to questions or to the allegations.

DOC Secretary Jon Litscher told reporters Thursday that he believes the facility is safe for staff.

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