The Republican leader of the Wisconsin Senate said Wednesday that the state’s juvenile prison has “been a mess for some time” and that Gov. Scott Walker’s administration should have done more to fix the problems earlier.
Walker’s response to allegations of inmate abuse at the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison in Irma is an issue in his re-election bid this year against Democrat Tony Evers, the state schools chief. Democrats have long faulted Walker for not doing enough to fix problems at the prison, which has been under criminal investigation for more than three years.
Meanwhile Walker and Republicans are trying to focus on Evers’ decision not to revoke the license of a teacher who was fired after viewing pornographic images on his work computer. Walker highlighted the issue in his first attack ad of the campaign, released Wednesday.
Evers has responded that he didn’t have legal authority to revoke the teacher’s license and afterward worked with lawmakers to change the law expanding the circumstances that warrant revocation.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, during a conference call Wednesday with reporters, said Evers hadn’t been a leader on the proposal, noting that it had no Democratic co-sponsors and Evers did not personally testify in support of it, though a representative of the education department did.
Fitzgerald also was asked about whether Walker had done enough to address issues at Lincoln Hills, where for years inmates alleged being abused by prison staff who urged lawmakers to improve safety.
“Obviously Lincoln Hills has been a mess,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s been a mess for some time.”
Fitzgerald said he hoped that the Department of Corrections, which is a part of Walker’s administration, could have taken care of issues there earlier.
“I’m not necessarily shocked, but very disappointed, that more action wasn’t taken directly by DOC at the time,” he said.
Corrections Department spokesman Tristan Cook did not react specifically to Fitzgerald’s statements, but instead listed a series of improvements that have been made at the prison in recent years and said making additional changes remains a “key focus.”
The Lincoln Hills juvenile prison in Irma has been under federal investigation since December 2015, about a year after a state probe began. A Racine County judge sent Walker a letter in 2012 outlining his concerns with how prison staff responded after an inmate was sexually assaulted by his roommate and knocked out.
But Walker has said he never saw the letter, which aides said was received but never given to the governor.
Earlier this year, Wisconsin prison officials reached a legal settlement to end a federal lawsuit that enacts widespread changes in disciplinary tactics at the prison. In March, the state reached an $18.9 million settlement with one former juvenile inmate who suffered brain damage after she tried to hang herself in her cell.
Shortly after that settlement was reached, Walker signed a bill unanimously passed by the Legislature to close the Lincoln Hills prison by 2021 and replace it with smaller, regional prisons.
Walker’s attack ad against Evers includes a reference to a sex act from a 2010 report on a Middleton-Cross Plains School District teacher who was fired for sharing with other teachers emails containing nudity, crude jokes and other inappropriate material. An arbitrator later reinstated him because the punishment was more severe than for other teachers who were involved.
The Walker ad quotes from the report that found the teacher had suggested to one student that she “brush up on her sex skills because that’s all she’ll be good at later in life.” Wording from the report referring to oral sex is shown on the screen.
The ad also shows stock footage of young women talking, but not their faces, while the narrator says the teacher “commented on the chest sizes of middle school girls.”
A circuit court judge and state appeals court upheld the arbitrator’s ruling and the teacher returned to work in 2014 — which the ad notes with a closing line: “The teacher is still in the classroom with young girls.”
Evers’ campaign manager, Maggie Gau, accused Walker of making “disgusting, dishonest and increasingly desperate attacks” that reveal his desperation as polls show the race is about even.
“The people of Wisconsin know Tony has spent his lifetime doing what is best for our kids,” Gau said, adding that Evers “worked with both parties to toughen the law.”
School boards in Wisconsin have the authority to fire teachers. The decision to revoke a teacher’s license rests with the state education department that Evers runs. The Legislature changed the law in 2011 to allow for license revocation in cases where teachers view pornography in the classroom, even if students were not exposed to it.
The law in place in 2010 required students to be endangered by the teacher’s “immoral conduct” in order to revoke the teaching license. Evers has cited that as the reason why he couldn’t revoke Harris’ license — because no students viewed the material in question.