Harsh treatment for teens

As I follow what’s been happening at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys in northern Wisconsin, I find myself thinking back to when I ran the corrections agency for young people in Washington, D.C. When our team took over in 2005, the agency’s youth prison had been under court oversight for more than 20 years, having been sued for problems similar to those seen at Lincoln Hills. These included excessive use of force by staff and extended use of solitary confinement.

Essentially, our facility for young people was being run largely with an adult corrections approach, where force was used to control teenagers, and security was paramount.

It wasn’t unusual for young people to challenge staff, including with assaults, and for staff to respond by using even more force (our staff was disproportionately made up of very large men, many of whom had played college football). They then would throw the young person into solitary confinement in their cell, and once let out they were even angrier than when they went in — and the cycle just started again.

It quickly became clear that, despite most staff being good people who had taken the job to help young people, they had not been given the tools or the training to do their jobs effectively or safely. In changing the culture, it was critical for us to train staff to work with challenging young people, and to create a culture of respect in the facility, for teenagers and staff alike. And we needed strong leadership to make it clear we would have no tolerance for abuse of youth.

It is clear Lincoln Hills has had longstanding and deep-rooted problems. Without question, the federal court’s intervention was appropriate and necessary to stop the abuses of young people that were taking place. Whether it was excessive use of force, pepper spray or solitary confinement, such practices have no place in a well-run correctional facility — particularly one for teens.

My experience is facilities that become reliant on such approaches become more dangerous and abusive for young people and staff. As was the case in Washington, D.C., Lincoln Hills’ staff have clearly not been given the appropriate tools, training or guidance necessary to operate a safe facility.

As the facility attempts to comply with the court’s order, it is not surprising to see challenges for staff, and young people pushing boundaries. Any parent of a teenager knows that’s what adolescents do. It is the job of responsible adults to figure out healthy and productive ways to guide young people in the right direction.

One of the best strategies is just keeping kids busy doing positive activities, and it appears that Lincoln Hills is attempting to do this. This will result in benefits for young people and make behavior management easier.

Even if the young people at Lincoln Hills are making a challenging transition more difficult, this can be managed in many ways short of returning to practices that include use of force and solitary confinement. Strong, qualified leadership and effective training for staff will be the key factors in changing the culture and shifting Lincoln Hills toward what should be positive youth development, rather than operating the facility like an adult prison.

Working in a youth correctional facility is an incredibly tough job. We need to train staff to engage in effective verbal de-escalation techniques so tense situations that could result in physical altercations are resolved calmly. And it is critical we have qualified mental health professionals as part of the facility team. Qualified, well-trained staff should be on the units where kids live so they can help manage kids effectively and serve as role models for other staff in how to communicate effectively.

Trying to overpower young people and meet force with more force is doomed to fail. Such an approach will only result in harm to both students and staff. It also is the costliest and least effective way to deal with adolescents who come into contact with the justice system. If Lincoln Hills can’t transition from a failed adult corrections model to an approach designed for youth, the best course of action would be to close the facility and move as many young people as possible into community-based programs or other facilities.

Though this is clearly a challenging time for Wisconsin, state and local leaders should see this as an opportunity. They can look to jurisdictions such as Missouri, New York, Virginia and Washington, D.C., as examples of ways to seek better public-safety outcomes, ensure wiser use of taxpayer dollars, and provide the best chance to help young people successfully transition to adulthood.

Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., and was chief of staff and interim director of D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, the district’s executive branch juvenile corrections agency: mschindler@justicepolicy.org and @Marc4Justice.

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