Former Lincoln Hills Guard Describes Life On The Inside | Wisconsin Public Television

Former Lincoln Hills Guard Describes Life On The Inside

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Premiere Date: 
October 27, 2017

Former Lincoln Hills Guard Describes Life On The Inside

After five guards from Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake were hospitalized over the weekend from attacks by inmates, we look into what life is like in the juvenile detention facilities. Joining us is Doug Curtis, a former corrections officer at Lincoln Hills, who provides an inside account of the facility. Sen. LaTonya Johnson also weighs in with her position on the facility.

Episode Transcript

Frederica Freyberg:

A first look tonight at what's being described as chaos at Wisconsin’s youth prison. Governor Scott Walker late this week directed the Department of Corrections to install an interim administrator at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake while the search for a new one is underway. This is in response to incidents at the youth correctional facility that have left several guards injured and new reports of inmates escaping to the roof of a building and throwing rocks and shingles at staff. The institution is currently under investigation by the FBI and the subject of a lawsuit over alleged inmate abuse. A federal judge this summer ordered staff to limit solitary confinement, use of restraints and pepper spray. While some are blaming that ruling with emboldening the inmates, the judge and attorneys for the inmates say it's up to Corrections to determine how to manage inmates' behavior without violating their constitutional rights. The most recent count shows 138 male juveniles are incarcerated and 22 females. We have two looks at this tonight, starting with a former youth corrections officer at the prison. Doug Curtis is also acting union steward there. Thanks for joining us.

Doug Curtis:

My pleasure.

Frederica Freyberg:

You retired about a year ago but are still actively involved. From your vantage point, what is it like inside that institution?

Doug Curtis:

It’s very tense. The tension level goes up as soon as you walk in the gate. You don't know what's going to happen. And with the level of violence going on up there in the last couple of years, you realize that you're in danger every second on the job. And there's a lot of seconds on the job when you're working three, four, sometimes five 16-hour shifts back to back. The tension and the stress on the employees is amazing.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, inmate numbers have dropped. In January of last year there were 226 males at Lincoln Hills. Latest count is 138. I know that some judges regard sentencing there as a last resort. Does that figure into the dangerousness of those who are in there?

Doug Curtis:

The students we have now are the most dangerous we've ever had. The counties aren't getting any money from the state, so they only send us students they can do nothing else with, the worst of the worst. And they've also eliminated a lot of the tools that we had to control behavior. They've become more and more lenient as the kids become more and more dangerous. That's the situation on grounds right now.

Frederica Freyberg:

Do you deny that inmates' civil rights were likely violated as the federal judge ruled or that prisoners were abused and subject to child neglect?

Doug Curtis:

I worked up there for 20 years. I never saw it. Some friends of mine that I did an interview with couple days ago agree with me. They worked a long time. They never saw it. Does that mean it never happened? It did happen. Very isolated incidents. You're working with human beings and we do stupid things every once in a while. But, again, it's very isolated. And certainly not as prevalent as people have been led to believe.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, how in your mind did the judge's ruling about curtailing the use of restraints, restrictive housing and pepper spray affect what is going on inside right now?

Doug Curtis:

It took the brakes off the wagon. The place was going downhill and now there's no brakes. Pandora Lobacz, good friend of mine, she was the lady that was assaulted and has that horrible bruise on her face, would not have been attacked if the student had been in restraints. Thanks to the judge's injunctions and the ACLU injunction, we were forced to put him in a classroom without restraints and that was the result.

Frederica Freyberg:

Is it an issue of staffing? I mean, would one need restraints and pepper spray and these other measures if there were enough people? Or is it not about that?

Doug Curtis:

Yes. You would need it. It's the behavior of the kids that determines whether pepper spray is used. It's not used as punishment.

Frederica Freyberg:

I want to just insert here that we did ask a person from the Department of Corrections to join us for this conversation, and they declined. And they also declined to provide a statement. But I want to ask you what you think needs to be done.

Doug Curtis:

There’s three things. Money. If you're not going to pay for change, you're not going to get change. If nothing changes, someone's going to be injured very badly or killed and the lawsuit is going to be massive. Two, you need bodies. The governor has said that there's -- they've allocated enough for eight more youth counselors. We need 35. And that's just youth counselors, not including social workers, teachers, psychological staff and others that keep that place running. Third, we need a prosecutor willing to prosecute every crime these kids commit up there. Without prosecution, what is the deterrent to taking a swing at staff? There is none.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, in directing the DOC to hire an interim administrator, the governor said, "We cannot allow individuals convicted of battery, armed robbery and even murder to feel empowered to attack staff and each other at these institutions." So with those words, do you feel as though the governor has the staff's back?

Doug Curtis:

No. No. Since Act 10, Corrections, not just at Lincoln Hills, has been ignored. Essentially, the line staff up there haven't gotten a raise since 2008. They gave us a 1% raise, most of which they took for additional retirement and medical payments. We've fallen behind dramatically every year.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, apparently the state budget does include funding for raises. I don't know what that figure would be. But the federal judge says that the state of Wisconsin has a duty to provide a safe and healthy environment for both the youths and staff. Why can't the state of Wisconsin do this?

Doug Curtis:

They have a very dangerous situation where people work staggering amounts of overtime. They can't get somebody to come up there and work, not for what they're offering. We may get 20 people from the academy. If we're lucky, we'll keep five. We're going to be getting nine people from the academy, but before January we're going to have eight people leaving for retirement, getting another job or just getting out. So we'll gain one, if we get that many to stay.

Frederica Freyberg:

All of this being said, do you think that this institution should be shut down?

Doug Curtis:

No. The first impulse by one of the legislators was to quit. Not fix the problem. Quit. Well, we've got a problem that needs fixing. And dumping the whole deal is not an answer. We need to protect the staff. We need to provide the services we're required by law to provide. We're not going to do that unless they pony up the money.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. Doug Curtis, we need to leave it there. Thanks for joining us and telling us about the institution.

Doug Curtis:

You’re most welcome.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now we turn to a state lawmaker from Milwaukee who has deep concerns about the juvenile correctional facility. Some 40% of the inmates are from that city. Senator LaTonya Johnson joins us from Milwaukee and thanks a lot for being here.

LaTonya Johnson:

Thank you for having me.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, so what do you think should happen with Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake?

LaTonya Johnson:

I think Lincoln Hills should be closed. But it needs to be closed with a plan in place to house those children once they -- once the facility is closed so they can be relocated closer to home.

Frederica Freyberg:

And do you have a model for what that would look like?

LaTonya Johnson:

I don't necessarily have a model for what that should look like. There has been some interest expressed with the Missouri model, smaller facilities, more -- that resemble more like pods and closer to the place where these children are from. Having their families visit is of great importance to making sure that these children learn new behaviors. And having them so far away from home is challenging.

Frederica Freyberg:

What is your reaction to the reported injuries suffered by correctional staff there in recent days?

LaTonya Johnson:

It’s troubling. It's concerning. And it shouldn't be tolerated. This has gone on for far too long. We're looking at about three years now, since about 2014. There's an ongoing investigation. There was supposed to be changes made to ensure the safety of both the correctional officers and the children. But instead of seeing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake go in a new direction, we continue to see these injuries to both the correctional officers and to the juveniles that are housed there. It's impossible to make sure that Lincoln Hills is safe. And for that reason, it needs to be closed.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, what went wrong in that institution?

LaTonya Johnson:

I personally think that Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake was set up for failure in the beginning. Anytime you have to depend on one correctional facility to house your juveniles, if something goes wrong with that facility, you have no other resource. Not only has Lincoln Hills been a source of complications for the juveniles that are housed there. It's posing problems and complications for juveniles here in Milwaukee because the judges don't want to sentence children to Lincoln Hills. They're being kept here at the Vel Phillips Center that has a capacity for about 110 kids, who at last count was housing somewhere around 130 kids. So it's causing other failures in the system.

Frederica Freyberg:

Who do you blame?

LaTonya Johnson:

I blame the state. It's our responsibility to make sure that the staff and the children are safe. That's our one priority, our one responsibility. And right now, no one's being held accountable for that safety. We can't expect those children to not come out and to not reoffend when we're teaching them to reoffend. If these children are given the right programming, resources and the right medical attention, they should become productive citizens. But they're not getting any of that right now.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, as to that point, would more of these kinds of staff help if you were to keep this facility open?

LaTonya Johnson:

I think staff that are properly trained, given the right resources and the right support. Then juvenile justice, it works. It can work. But what Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake is lacking is all of that. It's lacking proper training for the staff, the resources and the supports that they need, which is why we keep seeing these incidents that are causing both the staff and the students to be unsafe.

Frederica Freyberg:

Do you think it's true, as the governor says, that violent individuals in these institutions have become emboldened by media reports and these court-ordered changes?

LaTonya Johnson:

No, I don't. I don't. We have to remember that Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake is a juvenile facility. That is what they are supposed to specialize in. Which is helping these children to not reoffend. So to say that the media is embolding them, it's ridiculous. The reality is that the facility is unsafe and nobody's being held accountable. They haven't gotten the right training or resources, and that's why Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake is unsuccessful.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. We leave it there. Senator LaTonya Johnson, thanks very much for joining us.

LaTonya Johnson:

Thank you.

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