FOX 11 tours Wisconsin youth prison

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

IRMA (WLUK) -- The state's troubled youth prison in Lincoln County opened its doors to a limited number of members from the media this week.

FOX 11 Investigates has been following the legal developments at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools. We were among the handful who got to tour the facility and talk with staff about changes being made to improve conditions for both the inmates and workers. The only restriction -- no cameras allowed inside.

The inside of the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for girls is much like the outside this time of year -- quiet. The facility has been under scrutiny for several years, with ongoing criminal investigations looking into prisoner abuse and child neglect. Earlier this year a federal judge ordered the prison to restrict the use of handcuffs, pepper spray and solitary confinement, while several lawsuits work their way through the courts.

Interim Superintendent John Paquin acknowledged many changes have taken place over the past year saying "We're focused on improving this place and making it the best we can."

Paquin says hiring a permanent Superintendent is nearly complete.

Over the past two years more than a dozen workers have been put on leave or quit.

Currently, there are 20 youth counselor openings out of 94 budgeted. Another 13 openings are for youth counselor supervisors.

Recently the facility began allowing staffers unlimited trades with their schedules -- it's a pilot program that could find its way to other state prisons.

Paquin says they're looking at offering flex scheduling to help with recruiting. The idea of allowing staff to bring in their cell phones, currently not allowed, is also being considered to cater to the potential millennial hires.

As for the numbers, there are currently 162 inmates at the youth prison -- 142 boys and 20 girls. That number is down dramatically from the 264 from two years ago.

At least four of the 12 housing units are vacant on the property. The two we were shown were decorated for the holidays, as were the school hallways.

Other changes that have been made include medications now being administered by an outside nursing agency. The head of the psychiatric services unit indicates staffing in that department has increased. She reports a reduction in crisis behavior due to implementing additional resources. In addition to more treatment option the prison has increased educational and recreational opportunities to keep inmates more engaged.

The tour did not include viewing the two restrictive housing units--the center of lawsuits facing the facility. A federal judge's order this summer allows for solitary confinement for only 7 days as a behavioral punishment. Previously offenders could be held for up to 60 days. And while some staff indicate the inmates know about the restrictions when it comes to discipline, Paquin says "Even with the injunction, restrictive housing is probably one of our best run units right now."

And while some are calling for the Lincoln Hills complex to be shut down, it's clear officials are planning for the future, they say by maximizing safety and security for inmates and staff.

This fall democratic State Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee sponsored a bill that would shut down Lincoln Hills within a year if changes can't be made. The DOC.

Department of Corrections officials declined to talk about any pending legislation or litigation involving the youth prison.

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