Juvenile detention report shows improvements

Officials say more work needs to be done at Lincoln Hlls and Copper Lake

Lincoln Hills Photo
Lincoln Hills Photo (courtesy of the Department of Corrections)

A ninth and latest report on the Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake School (LHS/CLS) juvenile detention facilities, compiled by a court-ordered monitor, was released Tuesday. Although the Department of Corrections (DOC) is highlighting the report’s observation of a “significant improvement in many key areas and in the overall atmosphere,” at the facilities, concerns continue to linger.

The monitor visited the facilities on March 19, and was accompanied by an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The monitor interviewed 48 youth and 33 staff members as part of the review. A DOC weekly population breakdown shows that 83 youth were held in DOC facilities on March 19. According to the latest population count from April 16 the number stands at 84 youth in DOC facilities.

Department Of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Department Of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Controversy has surrounded the two facilities since an ACLU lawsuit uncovered abuse of detained youth. The state of Wisconsin agreed to settle the class action in 2018. Several policy changes were imposed, all focused on decreasing use of force. Appointing a court-ordered monitor was also part of the deal.

“Our administration is proud of the steps we have taken at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake over the past two years,” said DOC Secretary Kevin Carr. “We look forward to working with the monitor and engaging our staff in areas that can help lead to better outcomes for youth in our care.”

The department highlights findings in the report including a 63% decrease in the use of mechanical restraints and a 36% decrease in use of force. Those reductions occurred over the monitoring period from December to February. A DOC press release notes that “there has been a precipitous decline in length of time a youth stays in Administrative Confinement. In November, the average length was 143 minutes, which was reduced to 74 minutes in February 2021.” An increase in programming was also noted by the department, with the monitor’s report describing youth projects as “very impressive,” and praising the variety of creative outlets.

Lincoln Hills detention facility
Lincoln Hills, a detention facility the state has ordered closed by 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections)

Ron Hermes, DOC  juvenile corrections administrator, said, “We’re really excited about our growing arts programming, especially our music program.” Hermes added that, “it’s important to offer youth culturally relevant programs that provide them the opportunity to express themselves creatively. We are seeing the therapeutic impact that music has on our youth, and we are seeing that we have some very talented young writers and musicians who have something important to say through their music.”

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The monitor’s observations included some concerns, however. “There is a positive change in the overall atmosphere from the last visit,” the report states. “There continues to be concern regarding programming, use of force, restraints, and other issues, however, overall, there has been improvement and progress in several areas of the consent decree from the last site visit.”

Even through the plain tone of a monitor’s report, the impact of improvements to programming as well as new renovations to the facility shines through. “Youth will be able to create music for themselves, family, and perform for their peers and staff while at LHS/CLS,” the report states. “Youth are extremely excited about these new renovations.”

Restrictions and modifications to the facilities due to COVID-19 also created new issues, including curtailed visits. Milwaukee County Supv. Ryan Clancy has raised this issue in recent weeks, after being denied a visit to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake by the DOC due to the restrictions.

“Much like the Milwaukee County Jail, administration at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake has chosen to flatly deny access to elected officials who would normally be able to visit to verify conditions in between quarterly reports from monitors,” Clancy told Wisconsin Examiner. “I made a request last December, and then again on January 25 of this year. When the report was released. Both requests were denied.”

Supv. Ryan Clancy founded Progressive Restaurants and Activists of Wisconsin Network as an alternative to the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Clancy.)

Remote learning continues in the juvenile facilities, but youth appear engaged in the programming, according to  the monitor. The report notes that, “Youth in general seemed less agitated and bored. All the youth that the Monitor interacted with were respectful and were less interested in interacting with the monitoring team this visit.”

The monitor’s report wasn’t entirely glowing, however. “Although youth were more engaged in activities than last visit, there is still a need for more meaningful activities, weekend programs and enhanced educational hours which will help reduce the risk of youth engaging in antisocial behaviors when they have little else to do.” It added that, “there needs to be a focus on creating a daily schedule that provides for meaningful activities and accountability in order to minimize the incidents of youth acting out. Staff are still frustrated with what is perceived to be a lack of ways to hold youth accountable as well as a lack of incentives that will foster improved behaviors.”

Clancy, too, is encouraged by many of the monitor’s findings, but feels there’s much more to be done. “We cannot, though, measure progress only in a relative sense. The conditions described in the [last] report were horrific, especially the data around safety reported by both the children in our care and the staff there.” He argues that it’s “frustrating and inaccurate” to declare a victory at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake simply because conditions had improved since the prior, troubling findings.

“We need to hold our care to a higher standard than this,” said Clancy. “We are still operating a facility which has children testing positive for COVID, no daily schedule, a lack of culturally competent programming and in which the youth report problems with the ‘use of physical force, staff being too quick to go hands-on before attempting to verbally de-escalate, discontent with quality of e-learning, and perceived racial biases of staff,’” said Clancy, quoting the report.