Scroll Top

Wisconsin’s system fails to track assaults at juvenile prisons

Lincoln Hills

Madison — State corrections officials have fallen six months behind in publishing an annual report on attacks on officers, and Wisconsin’s youth prisons have yet to implement a centralized database tracking assaults, fights and other incidents.

At the juvenile facilities, officials store paper copies of reports in inmates’ files, making it difficult to identify the extent of problems at the two institutions now under criminal investigation.

The FBI is leading the probe of Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, the state’s juvenile prisons that share a campus 30 miles north of Wausau. Agents are looking into prisoner abuse, child neglect, excessive use of pepper spray, the destruction of public records and other crimes.

In 2012, then-Corrections Secretary Gary Hamblin said assaults against officers in Wisconsin’s prisons appeared to be spiking, but inconsistent record keeping made it impossible to know for sure. He ordered changes to how staff assaults were tracked so officials could more effectively curb them.

A year later, in December 2013, the Department of Corrections released its first comprehensive review of assaults on staff. It followed it up in early 2015 with a second annual report.

But six months into 2016, the third report has yet to be published. Department spokesman Tristan Cook didn’t explain why the report hasn’t been released, but said it would be “as soon as it is ready.”

The last report found there had been 16 staff assaults at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake over the course of a year.

“That’s so far off it’s just a joke,” one Lincoln Hills worker said when told of the figure.

“The number of assaults is grossly underreported,” said Troy Bauch, who represents Lincoln Hills workers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Cook did not say whether the department stood by its report that found there were 16 assaults on staff at Lincoln Hills from July 2013 to June 2014. He said officials have taken recent steps to assist Lincoln Hills staff in monitoring incidents at the institution, such as providing workers with body cameras, implementing a new inmate complaint process and giving workers additional training.

Since 2011, the Department of Corrections has logged incidents at adult prisons electronically. That allows them to conduct searches, identify trends and track how individual episodes are handled.

But that’s not the case for the juvenile facilities. There, reports are simply kept on paper, Cook said.

The department plans to roll out an electronic system by the end of the year for tracking incidents at the juvenile prisons that will mirror the one used for adult prisons, Cook said. It will cost about $800,000.

In the meantime, prison officials are holding regular meetings to stay on top of security issues at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, he said.

Former corrections chief Walter Dickey said maintaining data in a way that allows for easy analysis is critical when it comes to improving safety in facilities like Lincoln Hills.

“Figuring out whether you’ve got a problem with a staff member, a lack of staff member, whether (an area) is understaffed, whether there are times of day that are particularly problematic — in order to answer those questions, having the data in a form that allows you to see those answers is important,” said Dickey.

From 1983 to 1987, Dickey was in charge of what was then called the Division of Corrections under Democratic Gov. Tony Earl. Now retired, Dickey was a longtime professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School who focused on criminal justice issues.

“Sophisticated staff members will often think that they know where the facility’s vulnerabilities are,” but analyzing hard data often tells a different story, Dickey said.

“Until you see the hard patterns in the data, you don’t really know,” he said.

The Department of Corrections’ response to one open records request from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel underscores how a paper-based system makes it difficult to identify the extent of problems at the youth facility.

The news organization requested copies of reports of fights at the youth prisons for 2014 and 2015. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joy Staab declined to provide the records in January because she said it would be too burdensome on the agency to find those reports.

To identify instances of those fights, staff would have to search each individual’s file, Staab wrote in a memo denying the request.

Providing the records would be so cumbersome that “the normal functioning of Lincoln Hills School over a significant period of time would be impaired, justifying the denial of this request,” she wrote.

Last month, the department said it would be willing to provide the records, but only if the Journal Sentinel paid more than $1,100 to cover staff time needed to locate the records. The newspaper has asked the department to explain why it estimates officials would need approximately 50 hours of staff time to find the records on fights.

About 50 state agents and attorneys raided Lincoln Hills in December to gather documents and videos and interview inmates and staff as part of their probe. State investigators launched the probe in January 2015 and turned it over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation earlier this year.

Recently released emails show just how extensive their seizure of evidence was.

On Dec. 2, Lincoln Hills’ security director at the time, Rick Peterson, wrote to his colleagues to tell them that a digital forensic examiner from the state Division of Criminal Investigation, Larry Slessert, would be visiting the institution the next day to copy videos from the facility’s cameras.

“Mr. Slessert described it as ‘an enormous amount of video,'” Peterson wrote, according to a copy of the email released under the public records law.

That prompted this response from Wendy Peterson, who was deputy superintendent at the time: “What is this all about?!?”

Wendy Peterson has since been promoted to superintendent. She and Rick Peterson are not related.

Wendy Peterson wasn’t the only person out of the loop on an issue leading up to the raid.

On Dec. 2, Lincoln Hills leaders were notified officials from the adult prison system would be involved in transferring an inmate between housing units at the youth prison.

“What in world is going (on)?” Lincoln Hills’ superintendent at the time, John Ourada, wrote to top corrections officials. “We could have easily moved this youth to another Living Unit without involving (the Division of Adult Institutions).”

His boss, Paul Westerhaus, the next day responded: “FYI — not sure what this is about.”

Hours later, Westerhaus and Ourada abruptly retired.

The Dec. 5 raid was triggered by an incident that occurred a week earlier in which a staff member pushed a juvenile into his cell and slammed the metal door. The juvenile’s foot was caught in the door and his toes were mangled.

The emails do not make clear if the juvenile being transferred was the same one who had his foot caught in the door. But sources said officials from two adult prisons, Stanley Correctional Institution and Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility, were brought in soon after the incident to monitor the juvenile 24 hours a day for about a week.