NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wisconsin's Only Juvenile Detention Center Under Investigation


A difficult conversation is taking place in Wisconsin. It's about how to discipline young people who are being held at the state's only juvenile detention center. Many say staff there have crossed the line. And now the FBI and state Justice Department are investigating allegations of widespread physical abuse. From Wisconsin Public Radio, Gilman Halsted reports.

GILMAN HALSTED, BYLINE: There's a huge Christmas wreath hanging on the entrance gate to the Lincoln Hills Copper Lake School. There's a chain-link fence topped with razor wire surrounding the 880-acre campus that's dotted with cottages, where more than 260 teens are held for crimes ranging from car theft to sexual assault. It sits on a wooded hillside outside the town of Irma, 240 miles northwest of Milwaukee. On December 5, dozens of state officials raided this school after reports of staff abuses ranging from strangulation and suffocation to sexual assault. Within days, the superintendent and the state's top administrator for juvenile corrections retired. Arifah Akbar came here from Milwaukee last week to visit her 17-year-old son. She alleges that staff here beat him while he was handcuffed after he got in a fight with another teen.

ARIFAH AKBAR: They put the handcuffs on him. And as they was, you know, being real aggressive with him, pushing him up against the wall and, you know, punching him, he said they was punching him in his sides and his face.

HALSTED: The Department of Corrections declines to comment on any specific incidents. In an email, Secretary Ed Wall says the department is taking aggressive action to investigate past misconduct and ensure immediate safety. Kelly Knudsen is a former librarian here and says she left her job in disgust last summer because the administration ignored staff complaints about the level of violence. She says staff shortages forced security officers to work double shifts, creating a tense atmosphere where fights were frequent. She describes one incident as a minor riot.

KELLY KNUDSEN: Twenty kids just started going nuts. Maybe that's where some of this excessive force might have came in. But what are you supposed to do when kids are throwing garbage cans and assaulting anybody - just walking up behind anybody? It didn't matter if it was someone they knew and liked and just punching them over their heads, arms raised, just like a battle.

HALSTED: Mark Towne is a retired state prison warden who has three family members working there. He compares the atmosphere at the Lincoln Hills Copper Lake School to a fight club.

MARK TOWNE: When you have youth that are fighting each other that often, day in, day out, and nothing's happening, there's no consequences, it emboldens them.

HALSTED: Union officials say the new, more lenient discipline policies have led to more assaults on staff, more than 40 documented in the past year and a half. In the wake of the investigation, the department has promised a massive retraining program and an overhaul of the reporting procedure for violent incidents. Governor Scott Walker, who closed the state's only other juvenile detention center four years ago for budget reasons, says these new policies don't excuse any staff member who broke the law.

SCOTT WALKER: We want to make sure that not only are personnel and policy issues dealt with, but if there's any individual or groups of individuals that have violated the law, that they be held accountable.

HALSTED: Other states have found success by developing a culture of treatment, not punishment, finding that approach has reduced the number of teens going on to adult prison. Jim Moeser, of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, says research shows that the less prisonlike atmosphere is often more effective in rehabilitating offenders.

JIM MOESER: We know segregation for long periods of time in isolation is - really has more negative results than positive. So I think around the country, we see this sort of change in approach in institutions on how to deal with kids.

HALSTED: State legislators are now calling for a public hearing on safety conditions at the school. Evidence gathered in the ongoing investigation in Wisconsin will be presented to a circuit court judge in a closed hearing this week. For NPR News, I'm Gilman Halsted. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gil Halsted