Confinement of youth, staff shortages linger at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake

Concerns persist over the day-to-day in Wisconsin’s long-troubled juvenile prisons

By: - May 24, 2022 6:15 am
Lincoln Hills Photo

Lincoln Hills Photo (courtesy of the Department of Corrections)

As the state finalizes plans to eventually close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile prisons, the populations have grown since January, further straining employees in the understaffed facilities.

The issue was raised at a recent meeting of the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Commission. “There are two primary concerns about the current situation at Lincoln Hills,” Benjamin Gonring, attorney manager of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Office’s juvenile unit, told Wisconsin Examiner in an email. “First, as out-of-home placement options continue to decline, including the recent closures of some detention centers in the state, placement at Lincoln Hills is seemingly becoming a popular dispositional option.” It’s a practice Gonring fears can result in “the placement of some youth who probably don’t belong in such a restrictive setting.”

As of May 20, the population at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys was 65. There were 13 girls at its sister-facility for girls, Copper Lake, according to Department of Corrections (DOC) population reports. The  population has nearly doubled at Lincoln Hills since January 7, when there were 36 boys; at Copper Lake, the population of girls increased by one over that same period of time.

In addition to concerns that Gonring cites that Lincoln Hills isn’t appropriate for some of the newly arrived youth, their numbers further exacerbate the facility’s chronic staffing shortage.

Like several other correctional institutions across the state, Wisconsin’s juvenile prisons are understaffed. Overall, more than one-third of the staff positions — 36.7% — are vacant at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Shortages are worse in specific positions. “It is higher if you just look at security staff, youth counselors, and youth counselors-advanced,” John Beard, communications director for the DOC, explained in an email. “For just that group it is 42%.”

During Senate Committee hearings in February, vacancy rates as high as 44% for teachers and 57% for social workers, which were noted in a monitor’s report, were also reported.

“There is an inarguable staffing shortage at Lincoln Hills,” said Gonring. “That combined with the increasing population leads to, as the [Division of Juvenile Corrections] is freely admitting, the unfortunate reality that they cannot provide the programming that they would like to offer the youth. That impacts school, that impacts the provision of treatment, and frankly, it impacts the amount of time the youth can even be in common spaces. With insufficient staff to monitor the interactions, youth are now being confined in their rooms for increasing periods of time.”

Beard confirmed that on May 14, “some but not all housing units had modified programming.” That resulted in “normal operations” resuming by 2:30 p.m. that day. “Normally, youth are out of the rooms from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., with the opportunity to earn incentive time to 9:30 p.m.,” Beard said. “However, staffing numbers are down and, if for some reason (someone calls in sick for instance), there are not enough safety staff to monitor the youth out of their rooms and keep them safe, programming is modified.”

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Beard said that school administrators try to avoid such situations.

“Leadership at the schools takes every step possible to prevent this, but there have been instances where it has happened,” he said. “However, schedules are not being modified every day, in some cases, are only modified for part of a day until more staff can arrive to safely resume normal programming.” Nevertheless, Beard said, “all youth are receiving at least the minimum three hours of out-time per day as required by the consent decree” that resulted from a 2017 lawsuit over conditions at Lincoln Hills.

In-person activities resumed at the facilities in May 2021, and if there aren’t enough staff to monitor all youth in the school at once, then teachers go to the housing units and teach class in the day rooms, said Beard.

The lack of staffing and modified programming “leads to safety concerns,” said Gonring. “Spending prolonged periods of time in confinement, without the benefit of the amount of treatment or school that LHS would like to be able to offer, will lead to negative results. Many of these youth have trauma backgrounds that are not well-served by this emerging reality. As anxiety increases and/or depression increases, this often reveals itself in the form of aggression, jeopardizing the safety of all the human beings who are present.”

As Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake near the end of their lifespans, the DOC will face the new challenge of transferring the youth currently there. The Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center in Milwaukee remains a top candidate for where the new Type 1 facility necessary to house youth closer to home will be constructed. Some criminal justice advocates, formerly incarcerated people, and local activists have pushed back against the plans, as the correctional center is one of Milwaukee’s only re-entry facilities for adult men.

About five of the young people at Copper Lake  could “potentially benefit from the services” provided at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center, according to Beard. However, 26 of the 29 beds at Mendota are currently in use. Young people can be transferred to Mendota only if they  “have to be found in need of services provided at Mendota,” said Beard. “There is a process of medical/psychological evaluation that leads to determination if a youth would benefit from such a transfer.” Beard added that the Division of Juvenile Corrections, “prioritizes transfers based on the needs of the youth.”

With plans to close the facilities at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake ongoing, and concerns lingering, many are awaiting the next federal monitor’s report.

“The federal monitor has always been very thorough in her reporting, noting both progress and concerns,” said Gonring. “The duration of confinement time is something that is measured in each report. I fully expect that all stakeholders will be kept abreast of any violations in upcoming reports.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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