Operations at the embattled juvenile correctional facilities in northern Wisconsin are at the best they have been since a court-appointed monitor began reviewing them in 2018, but staff shortages continue to hamper further progress, according to the latest assessment of conditions at the schools.
In a report released Wednesday, the monitor overseeing the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma noted that, like in past months, youths were sometimes confined to their rooms not because of their behavior but due to the lack of staff to supervise them elsewhere.
“Staffing shortages continue to exist with most days only having 50% of staff,” the court-appointed monitor, Teresa Abreu, said about the facilities, about 170 miles north of Madison, in a report covering their operations from November until the end of January.
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Still, Abreu said the facilities’ situation had improved from the last three-month reporting period.
When there were adequate staffing levels, youths went to school, did recreation outside and spent more waking hours out of their room, Abreu said.
In her latest visit, Abreu said she “did not encounter a single staff or youth that did not have a positive attitude ... Staff and leadership’s commitment to youth and to this reform effort is evident in every aspect of the operation.”
The monitor’s report, the 16th since 2019, was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Madison as part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Wisconsin, the Juvenile Law Center and Quarles & Brady law firm that highlighted dangerous conditions and abuse faced by teens at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
Under the court-approved settlement, there are 50 provisions of a consent decree that the Department of Corrections, which oversees the prison, must comply with, such as requiring youths to be out of their cells 30 hours per week, avoiding mechanical restraints and not strip-searching youths without probable cause. In the latest reporting period, the agency doubled the number of provisions that were in “substantial compliance,” from 15 to 30. But it continues to be only in “partial compliance” with the other 20.
“Seeing such a big jump, to being in substantial compliance with 60% of the items in the consent decree, is affirmation of the work put in by our staff and a testament to the leadership in (the Division of Juvenile Corrections),” Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said.
One provision the facilities continue to fall short on is making cells designated for youths confined to their rooms “suicide resistant and protrusion free.”
“The Monitor would not deem any room in any facility as being ‘suicide proof,’ however there are safety and security measures that can be put into place to reduce the risk of suicides and to make the rooms more suicide resistant,” Abreu said.
In interviews with youths, Abreu said their attitudes were “extremely positive.”
But one youth said a staff member used racist words against him, something Abreu said the Department of Corrections is investigating. A few youths complained about uses of force that they thought were excessive and one said staff grabbed youths by their necks, Abreu said.
Abreu noted she was happy to see more youths in class, but she said staffing shortages kept youths from attending class full time for much of the earlier part of the reporting period.
All youths except those who are in programs for high-risk individuals have received education every weekday since the close of the reporting period on Jan. 31, Department of Corrections spokesperson John Beard said.
The schools are slated to be closed and replaced by a facility in Milwaukee County under a bill signed into law in April by Gov. Tony Evers. In January, the Milwaukee Common Council approved the rezoning of the proposed site for the facility on the city’s north side. But completion of the facility likely remains years away.
Abreu said in the latest monitor report that the Milwaukee facility will only be able to house about half the youth at the northern Wisconsin facilities, and that Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake won’t close “until all youth have been moved to an appropriate placement.”
Last week, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed spending $83 million to build another juvenile facility in Dane County, near Oregon’s Grow Academy Juvenile Corrections facility, $25 million to expand the Grow Academy from a 6- to a 16-bed facility and $4 million to explore the option of building another facility in northern Wisconsin.
Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who co-chairs the powerful budget committee, declined through a spokesperson to comment on Evers’ proposed juvenile facilities.
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