Wisconsin juvenile prisons struggle to change course

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

FILE PHOTO

The state’s troubled youth prison will be locked down this week to allow guards-in-training to search inmates’ cells for contraband.

The move comes after a number of assaults on staff by inmates in recent weeks and amid concerns of a brewing prison riot.

“The institution will be locked down for two days while they shake down the entire institution and search it,” said Doug Curtis, a retired guard who represents employees at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls.

Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook said the search is being conducted by correctional officers in training and is a required task for every trainee to complete before being hired full-time.

Staff at the prison in recent weeks have reported an increasingly chaotic environment as administrators have struggled to implement a federal court order to reduce or eliminate the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and restraints to manage inmate behavior, and fear a prison riot is being planned by inmates who they say are emboldened by the order and a number of lawsuits brought against DOC.

Cook, however, said this week’s search at the prison is part of training and there is no indication of plans of a riot.

“Each (officer in training) conducts a search of a DOC facility prior to the completion of their training. During the search, trainees apply techniques learned during the Academy to search the Schools for contraband,” Cook said. “Violent or disrespectful behavior by youth is unacceptable and we will take decisive action to safeguard staff and youth.”

Curtis said an emergency response team from Stanley Correctional Institution in Chippewa County is on hand “to take care of any disturbances” — which is not typical, and something he hadn’t seen in the 20 years he worked at the youth prison.

On Oct. 22, five prison guards were sent to a hospital after an altercation, and about a week before that, two female prison staff members were knocked unconscious by inmates who weren’t in restraints.

The Wisconsin State Journal also reported that in late September, a group of inmates seeking retaliation against a guard conspired to electrocute him but were unsuccessful. In August, a group of inmates fleeing a fight scaled the walls of one cottage, stood on its roof and threw rocks, shingles and pieces of metal.

The staff assaults and violent episodes, which followed years of allegations of inmate abuse by prison guards, prompted two Republican lawmakers who represent the area to ask the federal judge to reverse his order to revise their practices and two Democratic lawmakers to introduce a bill to close the facility within a year.

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 DOC 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.

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