Monitor reports Lincoln Hills showing “vast improvement” from last site visit

Published: Apr. 20, 2021 at 1:50 PM CDT
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IRMA, Wis. (WSAW) - The monitor, court-ordered to ensure that the Department of Corrections is following the court’s order to improve conditions at the state’s only youth prison, submitted her most positive review of the facility yet. Though, while the monitor said there needs to be improvement and development, she said the DOC still needs to work towards closing the facility and meet its threshold to be ready to do that.

This is the monitor, Teresa Abreau’s ninth visit to Lincoln Hills/Copper Laker Schools. It happened on March 18 for the period of December through February. The previous visit was at the end of January. She talked with about 48 youth, which is the majority of youth at the facility with a total population fluctuating between the high 50s and low 60s. She also interviewed 33 staff members. ACLU attorneys also went on the site visit with the monitor.

“There is a positive change in the overall atmosphere from the last visit,” she observed. She still has a concern about lack of programming availability, use of force, restraints, and other issues, but there is an overall improvement.

The facility was in partial or substantial compliance with each of the court’s orders, with many of the orders determined to be in partial compliance simply because there was not a written policy in place.

Pepper spray is no longer in use at the facility. Mechanical restraints are still being used in some instances, though it has been reduced overall and Abreau said it documentation does of instances where they were used is not entirely clear about whether it was for punitive purposes. She specifically stated, “Defendants (DOC) need to focus on reducing the use of mechanical restraints and ensuring use is not for punishment. Defendants need to make policy revisions and create quality assurance measures.”

Confinement has also been reduced and documentation appears to show staff is following the rules to the exceptions of use of confinement, including not using it as punishment. She noted better documentation and implementing a written policy will largely bring the facility into full compliance with the order.

The youth said they felt safe in general, but they felt that the staff did not feel safe and that they seemed intimidated by the youth. Abreau noted there were more positive attitudes in general and fewer complaints from the last visit. Though, the youth complained that staff is too quick to go hands-on and use physical force before using verbal de-escalation.

They also did not like the quality of e-learning, perceived racial bias of staff, or the long stretches of downtime. After reviewing video surveillance and being on-site, she said there is less idle time, but it needs to be improved. As of February, youth could do Zoom visits with family for 20 minutes weekly.

The youth began going to school in a hybrid model as of mid-March, with youth either attending school in-person within the school building in the morning or afternoon and doing the other half of their schooling through live, virtual instruction. They had previously been doing school virtually from within their housing units due to the pandemic and Abreau noted in her last report that that was negatively impacting students. She cited many of the same concerns parents and students in school outside of Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Schools shared about virtual learning during the pandemic.

Two educational assistants have been hired to help youth through tutoring, library resource continuation, one-on-one student support services, and intake orientations. There is also a new art room where a storage room used to be. The music room is being upgraded as well and the youth told her they are extremely excited about these new renovations. Abreau recommended that music, art, and recreation need to increase. In previous site visits, she recommended they create daily and weekly schedules to help youth with boredom and allowing for structured, meaningful programming, particularly on the weekends. She still encourages that, as daily schedules have still not been made.

The facility still has many COVID-19 mitigations in place, including having the ability to do rapid antigen testing. The pandemic has created numerous challenges for staff and youth, though some of those changes have been relaxing. Vaccines have been available to staff. The DOC has also sent communications to parents or guardians of youth who are 16 and older to be able to give consent if they chose for their child to get vaccinated. John Beard, the DOC communications director said so far two youth have gotten vaccinated, though more eligible youth (ages 16 and older) have expressed interest in getting vaccinated after having conversations with their health services staff. He said DOC has prioritized vaccinating their 65 and older populations and those with health conditions first, per the Department of Health Services’ recommendation.

There were youth and staff members who had tested positive for COVID-19 during the reporting period. When that happens to youth, they are quarantined in medical isolation and are only allowed out when no other youth are around. There is a separate quarantine unit for girls and a separate unit for boys from their general populations. There was one girl and nine boys quarantined during the reporting period.

Abreau noted staff in the boys’ quarantine unit seemed stressed and unhappy. Overall, she said staff morale seemed better during this visit compared to past visits. They told her they work a lot of overtime, though. She noted, there was one staff assault that had a profound impact on staff.

“Staff are still frustrated with what is perceived to be a lack of ways to hold youth accountable as well as a lack of incentives that will foster improved behaviors,” she stated.

Abreau continued to stress the need to make staff wellness a priority, something she has stated in past reports. Staff have largely been trained in de-escalation tactics as well as trauma-informed care. The DOC is still developing with the intent to fully implement dialectal behavior therapy to help with behavior management. They have also modified the canteen and reward incentives to promote daily good behavior. The new model of correction and growth with students and staff began on March 22 and the facility is beginning to track outcome measures.

She noted in her last visit that some problems would be reduced or alleviated if there were more staff on site. They have hired a psychology supervisor, several youth counselor supervisors, and nurse clinicians. The number of staffing vacancies has increased since the last report, though. Teacher vacancies remain high but have stayed the same between reporting periods at seven or just under 30% of the necessary teaching staff. She understood these are challenging positions to hire given the location of the facility, teacher shortages in the industry in general, relatively low compensation, as well as the uncertainty of when or if the facility will close.

Open youth counselor and youth counselor advanced positions have slowly increased from May of 2020 at about 15 total to about 37.5 open positions this round which makes up about a quarter of the youth counselor staff. Social workers are also needed and have stayed consistent in need with about 21% of social worker positions open.

She said there are adequate staffing levels in living units and she noted staff is engaging with youth in positive ways. She said overall youth attitudes were much better during this site visit describing that they seemed less bored and agitated during her time in the facility.

“The facility overall looked the best it has in the last two years,” she stated referring to the physical condition of the facility.

The DOC installed a roof deterrent system, which is mostly complete and seems to be doing what it was intended to do. According to Beard, the deterrent system is a roller system that runs along the roofline, making it difficult to climb on the roof. He said it has been used in other secure facilities. Each living unit has a room now dedicated room to allow youth to practice self-calming and de-escalation as well.

Living units, she noted, were overall very clean, and cited cleaning and decorating contests seemed to get youth excited. Previous reports have noted graffiti, sheets over door windows, scratches on windows inhibiting the view into the youth rooms, and issues with cleanliness. She specifically said there was no graffiti, scratched windows, or sheets over windows this time.

During an incident where youth broke out windows, youth have since painted murals over the window covers as they wait for repairs. Beard said the broken windows were not from the August incident, though did not say when they were broken. He stated the institution is currently looking at temporary ways to make the windows more resistant to breaking until a scheduled window replacement project happens later this year. He said those new windows will be resistant to breaking.

The mental health program was also evaluated by an outside consultant and found to be comprehensive. Abreau encouraged the use of psychological staff when making new protocols and implementing new policies.

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