Staffing shortages and rising population still plague Lincoln Hills

By: - December 9, 2022 6:02 am

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

Troubles with a rising population of youth and chronic staffing shortages have continued to plague the Lincoln Hills School for Boys. Recent months have seen the population in the notorious detention center remain over 70 incarcerated kids,  after shooting up to 85 youth in August. Although a recent monitor’s report highlights ways in which the Department of Corrections (DOC) has sought to improve conditions at Lincoln Hills, problems at the facility have remained persistent.

According to the 14th monitor’s report, based on a site visit on July 28 and 29, 2022, the increase in incarcerated youth “appears to be a trend that will continue into the foreseeable future.”

“While the population increase is a concern, the issue is compounded by the serious staffing situation (that still exists) of vacancies, turnover, various employee leaves, and overtime required to maintain sufficient staffing levels,” the report states. Staffing levels at the facility have created worsenting conditions  for youth, including longer stints of confinement and modifications to educational programming.

The Lincoln Hills facility was built to hold 519 kids, although the population has dwindled to fewer than 100 as support for closing the facility has grown. As of Dec. 2, the population had dropped down to 60, while the population at the Copper Lake School for Girls rests at nine. Closing the facilities has been the subject of years of debate, struggle and slow progress at the state level. While a new Type 2 facility has been approved for construction in the Milwaukee area, final details are still being hashed out, including where the successor to what was once one of America’s largest youth prison will be constructed. In the meantime, the monitor’s reports coming out of Lincoln Hills continue to detect the same problems.

The report also contained some good news. In August the DOC took on new hires at the facility, which led to a reduction in  confinement for youth. Physical improvements have also been made around the facility from the installation of new windows for each of the living units, upgraded lighting, the addition of more cameras, continued enhancements to music and arts, and an upgrade to the greenhouse. Incidents among the youth have also decreased since the last data collection cycle began in April. The youth facilities have also not used any chemical agents such as tear gas since the October 2019 data collection cycle began.

Nevertheless, the facility and its shortcomings still affect the youth confined within its walls. “It has certainly been difficult on the youth in our care and a challenge for our staff,” said DOC Secretary Kevin Carr. “Thankfully, we’ve been able to ease the burden a bit with recent hires and we have more staff reinforcements on the way.” Earlier this year, Gov. Tony Evers also approved a series of salary increases, including boosts of up to $11 an hour at some DOC facilities. Youth counselors at Lincoln Hills also saw a $10 an hour pay increase.

“We’re excited about the new staff who will be joining the team at the schools,“said DJC Administrator Ron Hermes. “The added staff will help us increase programming, and reduce idle time and room confinement like we and the monitor want.” Staffing shortages held a central place in the monitor report’s conclusion. “Resolving the staffing concerns and completing a staffing assessment will help ensure proper staffing needs and coverage for posts based on facility unique criteria and incident of violence rates. Until the staffing crisis is resolved, Defendants will have difficulty in continuing their progress with many of the areas of this Consent Decree,” the report states.


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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.