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FOX 11 Investigates violence against staff at Lincoln Hills

Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake School in Lincoln County is seen, Dec. 14, 2017. (WLUK/Mark Leland)

IRMA (WLUK) - As lawmakers work on a plan to close the state’s troubled youth prison, FOX 11 Investigates is learning more about a rise in assaults on staff at Lincoln Hills in Irma.

Hidden away in the Northwoods of Lincoln County is the Lincoln Hills School for Boys, and Copper Lake School for Girls, Wisconsin’s only juvenile prison.

The prison, while out of sight for most, would be out of mind if not for all the well-documented complaints from inmates and their families.

An internal investigation, led to the FBI getting involved in 2015 examining prisoner abuse, child neglect and mismanagement of the facility. That investigation is ongoing. But FOX 11 Investigates found the violence goes both ways, with a spike in attacks on staff in recent years.

"There’s so much violence going on there’s a revolving door in the security building," said Doug Curtis, who worked as a guard at Lincoln Hills for more than 20 years. He’s now a union representative.

"There were some horrific assaults on staff up there. And Pandora got the worst of it," Curtis is speaking of Pandora Lobacz, a teacher at Lincoln Hills school, who was beat up while on the job by a teen at the prison last October.

FOX 11 Investigates filed an open records request with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections for reports on assaults against staff at Lincoln Hills. The documents show over the past three years battery to staff shot way up.

In 2015 the reports show there were 32 incidents reported. In 2016 the number of attacks and battery case grew to 145. And in 2017 the incidents of juveniles attacking staff causing injury soared to 219.

"Ya that’s kind of low ball," said Curtis, who believes the actual numbers are much higher but downplayed, or the reports not filed.

"So was nobody paying attention to this rise in violence over these years, that something wasn’t done sooner?" FOX 11 Investigates asked Curtis.

"No. They weren’t paying attention to it. They weren’t getting beaten. It didn’t matter to them," said Curtis.

Curtis blames management of the facility. The DOC indicates changes have been made in the facility to address the violence over the years. The DOC established a seven-week youth counselor pre-service academy, increased availability of mental health services, safety training for non-security staff, and increased security positions.

The DOC also states it continues to seek input on staff safety addressing concerns on a proactive basis. The DOC declined to comment specifically to the complaints involving lawsuits and pending legal action.

Governor Walker in January announced a plan that calls for building smaller regional facilities to house juvenile inmates and close Lincoln Hills by mid-2020. State legislators then came together on a bi-partisan plan that would keep those troubled teens closer to home in county-operated facilities, modeling the plan after successful plans in other states.

State Representative Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, points out the bi-partisan plan was borrowed from a Democratic idea proposed months ago to address the reported violence.

"Given the history of the problems up there, was the state just negligent in not getting something done sooner?" FOX 11 Investigates asked Stuck.

"I would say it’s really on the elected officials, on the governor and the legislature officials that chose not to take action," said Stuck.

State Rep. David Steffen, R-Howard, agrees the red flags from Lincoln Hills should have been addressed.

"The state doesn’t always get it right the first time, second time, the third time. But we’re trying to learn and get better at how we address this real important issue when it relates to corrections," explained Steffen.

Most juveniles in trouble with the law in Wisconsin currently go into community-based facilities. These juveniles might be in trouble for minor crimes or first-time offenses, and opt to enter into community programs to get them back on the right track. Those committing the most severe crimes, or sentenced to more than a year of detention, are sent to Lincoln Hills.

"The reality is the worst of the worst offenders are up at Lincoln Hills," said Steffen.

Currently there are about 165 juveniles at Lincoln Hills. The new plan approved by the Assembly calls for the absolute worst of the worst to continue to be housed by the state at locations to be determined. The lesser offenders would be placed in county-operated facilites closer to their homes.

Besides location, lawmakers agree the approach needs to change too, to focus on getting the troubled teens the help they need.

"Same kids, same problems, different approaches," said Steffen.

Curtis agrees, but adds the guards working in these new facilities need to have a voice and be heard. He says when ACT10 was approved in 2011, correctional officers and workers lost their bargaining power to have an input in prison operations.

FOX 11 Investigates asked Curtis if guards don’t have a say in how the new youth prison facilities are run, what’s going to happen?

"They’re going to end up with a lot of smaller versions of Lincoln Hills," said Curtis.

Moving the juveniles out of Lincoln Hills isn’t expected to take place anytime soon. The State Assembly's plan could take about three years to implement. The State Senate is set to take up the Assembly's bill before it goes into recess in March.

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