Closer Look: DOC Secretary On Juvenile Detention Facilities

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Closer Look: DOC Secretary On Juvenile Detention Facilities

Premiere Date: 
March 17, 2017

The Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons are under federal investigation. Current and former inmates have alleged abuse, neglect and sexual assault at the two facilities north of Wausau. State Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher says fixing the problems there is his priority.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

In tonight's "closer look," the FBI is investigating prisoner abuse, child neglect and sexual assault at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile detention facilities north of Wausau. And conditions there are the crux of a class action lawsuit. But in a newspaper column this week, Wisconsin Secretary of Corrections says he's made it his mission to fix the problems from top to bottom. Jon Litscher joins us now and thanks very much for doing so.

 

Jon Litscher:

Well, thank you. It's good to be here and it's good to talk about the changes that we have made at Lincoln Hills, Copper Lakes, because I believe that some of your opening comments are the result of the past. And that's dwelled on, the issues of the past. And we're excited about making the changes to make this environment a safe and secure environment and an educational setting that can be respected by the youth.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

And so you say those are conditions of the past, but, again, that investigation is ongoing. But describe for me some of the changes that you have made since you became secretary.

 

Jon Litscher:

Well, first of all, even before I became secretary, I must say this because I think it's important. At the agency level, Division Administrator Paquin was appointed as the new Division Administrator of Juvenile Corrections, along with the Assistant Division Administrator Shelby McCulley. Both of them also took as their mission the complete change, the reorganization and the review of all policies, procedures and activities at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lakes. Management was also changed then at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lakes to bring in an individual that had a fresh set of eyes and a fresh philosophy in dealing with youth and dealing with the employee groups that are there. But some of the more specific issues that we dealt with is, first of all, is that we -- we're expanding both the mental health and the medical health services for the youth that are there. I emphasize the mental health because many of these young people are coming from lives that have had challenges, both challenges physically and mentally, academically, whatever area you want to say. And as a result they need assistance and they need help and we were committed to giving them that additional assistance. We completely revised our student complaint process, where that an individual youth that is at Lincoln Hills/Copper Lakes can feel confident that if he or she has a complaint against a staff person or some programmatic issue, that their complaint, number one, will not be reviewed by line staff, but by administrative staff directly. Why that is important? Because it builds confidence from the youth that there would be no retaliation for any type of complaint that would be made. Also, other issues that we have done as far as putting body cameras on our youth counselors. Why is that important? Because it deals with the interaction with the youth themselves such that there's a record, such that there is a -- not only a verbal record, but a video record of what kind of exchange that took place in there. And I could expand, but I’ll allow you to ask a question first.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, I do want to ask this. The ACLU lawyers say that people were fired and new leadership came in, like what you've described. But they say solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spray continue to be used? What is your response to that?

 

Jon Litscher:

Well, as part of our entire process there, we are working very diligently to reduce the use of what I would call restraints, restrictive housing and, well, pepper spray or OC, as we call it in the institution. The fact of the matter is that those are still aspects that we use because part of the problems of the past has been physical altercation or integration with these young people. That assists us in diminishing that. But what's more important than that is the fact of the retraining of our youth counselors in the aspects of positive proper use of force, understanding there's a trauma that's usually associated with these young people, so training in trauma-informed care and adolescent brain development and deescalating techniques and motivational interviewing to deescalate situations. These are all training mechanisms we implemented. Why? Because we want to reduce the outside uses of what would be seen as, using your terminology, pepper spray, but it's what we call O2 spray -- or OC spray, I’m sorry, but also the use of restrictive housing and restraints. So I will never say we are going to eliminate those because in some aspects from a pure safety standpoint, they may be necessary. And why may they be necessary? Because it decreases the need for any kind of a physical interaction between staff and youth and we think that's problematic. So we use other types of aspects to help and assist in behavioral issues.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

Just briefly in the few seconds left, some people are calling for these institutions to be shut down altogether. What's your response to that?

 

Jon Litscher:

Well, I think that that would be unwise. You're never going to stop the need for society saying some youth need to be removed and put in some type of a situation that betters them educationally, betters them program-wise and hopefully betters them as an individual and then return to their communities to be productive individuals.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. We need to leave it there. Secretary Litscher. Thanks very much.

 

Jon Litscher:

Thanks very much.


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