Why Walker Allowed Lincoln Hills Abuses
His staff knew about it for years. Why didn’t the governor act?
In February 2011, Gov. Scott Walker was at his busiest and most besieged, facing a furious reaction to his plan to decimate public employee union rights. Yet his staff felt he would want to take the time to speak to man who identified himself as David Koch, but turned out to be an impostor.
But a year later, in February 2012, Walker received a letter from Racine County Circuit Judge Richard Kreul, alerting him to problems at the Lincoln Hills Schools for Boys, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported. The letter included a copy of a memo detailing the beating and sexual assault of a boy and the failure of Lincoln Hills staff to notify law enforcement, child protective services and county officials. “I’m sure reading the attached memo will shock you as much as it did me,” Kreul wrote. “The indifference in this sordid tale is absolutely inexcusable.”
Yet Walker’s staff felt this brief letter was not important enough for the governor to read, according to what his spokesperson told the Journal Sentinel. If we are to believe that, Walker’s staff has been trained to prioritize his time so that a call from a non resident, David Koch, whom Walker said he had never met, was more important than a letter from a Wisconsin judge alerting him to a horrendous situation at a boys home whose mission is to rehabilitate youthful offenders.
The memo said the Lincoln Hills staff waited 15 days to inform Racine County officials about the assault and waited more than six hours to take the victim to the emergency hospital. When Lincoln Hills psychologist Paul Hesse was asked by a Racine County caseworker about the long delay getting the victim to a hospital, Hesse explained there was a basketball game going on and the sport was a “big deal” at the school. “Dr. (Hesse) chuckled and asked me, ‘What did you want them to do, stop the basketball game?'” the caseworker wrote.
Either way, the result is that the problems at Lincoln Hills escalated in the nearly four years since then to include child neglect, abuse of prisoners, strangulation and suffocation, using pepper spray to cause bodily harm or discomfort, tampering with public records and misconduct in public office. The problems are so serious the state Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI launched investigations of the situation.
Walker has said he only recently learned about the problems at Lincoln Hills and that he and his corrections secretary, Ed Wall (who has now resigned) took swift action to address problems at the school. As Walker told the Journal Sentinel in mid-December, “it wasn’t until recently that they (the DOJ and FBI) brought those concerns to our attention as to just how serious they thought (it was.)”
In fact there is overwhelming evidence that Walker knew for years there were problems at Lincoln Hills and did little about it. For starters, Racine County officials, in response to the sexual assault of a boy from their county, decided to stop sending any youthful offenders to Lincoln Hills. Next to Milwaukee County, Racine would be among the counties sending the most youthful offenders to Lincoln Hills. That’s a red flag to state officials they had such a huge problem that one of their biggest partners preferred the financial headaches of finding a local solution rather than simply sending their youthful offenders to the state facility. Yet we are to believe Walker was never told about this problem.
Rick Badger, executive director of Council 32 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told the Journal Sentinel that staff complaints about security concerns at Lincoln Hills had long gone ignored. “AFSCME members for years have complained that DOC leaders were covering up multiple youth-on-youth assaults and assaults on Lincoln Hills staff and failing to report these violent incidents to local law enforcement, as required by law,” he said. Yet no one felt Walker need to be bothered with this information.
Thomas Wanta, administrator of the Milwaukee County Division of Delinquency and Court Services, told the Journal Sentinel he received a phone call on Nov. 18, 2014, from a woman alleging that youth at Lincoln Hills were not receiving adequate education and that a number of them had their arms broken. Wanta said his agency, Milwaukee County prosecutors and Circuit Judge Mary Triggiano took the matter to the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and met with state officials about the allegation. Yet none of this was shared with the governor?
Rep. Mary Czaja (R-Irma) met with DOC administrators in March 2015 to discuss concerns about inmates abusing staff, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Irma gave the newspaper a DOC report for fiscal year 2014 which showed there were 16 assaults on staff, twelve of which were referred to law enforcement, seven of which resulted in injuries. Half occurred at Lincoln Hills. Wouldn’t the concerns of a Republican legislator have been relayed to the governor?
After weeks of the governor insisting none of this was shared with him, the Journal Sentinel did a public records request asking the Walker administration for documents related to Lincoln Hills. The documents showed Walker’s office “was told multiple times over the past year about problems… including claims of violence against youths and staff, inadequate classroom time, and the need to improve sexual assault safeguards,” the newspaper reported. “On July 28, Kevin McCarthy, a retired corrections employee living near the Irma prison, wrote the governor’s office that he was concerned about the safety of his daughter and friends, who still work at the facility. ‘You have staff who are being assaulted, youth who are being assaulted, doors being broken, windows broken… does the sheriff’s department or state police need to get involved when the staff at Lincoln Hills’” lose control of the institution? McCarthy wrote.
The Wisconsin State Journal had also requested documents related to Lincoln Hills. Yet the Walker administration never shared the letter from the Racine judge with either the State Journal or the Journal Sentinel (which eventually got it from another source). This is simply the latest example of Walker’s consistent policy of resisting and undermining the public records laws.
When you pile up all the evidence showing state officials and the Walker administration had known for years of the horrors going on at Lincoln Hills, you have to ask why wasn’t something done about this? One possibility is they simply didn’t care. But a more likely explanation is they did not want to devote more resources to the problem.
To save money, the Walker administration in 2011 shut down the Ethan Allen home in Wales and transferred the youthful offenders there to Lincoln Hills. (Judge Kreul has told the press he didn’t understand why Lincoln Hills was preserved as it had a worse reputation than Wales.) As the State Journal reported, Lincoln Hills had housed 160 inmates on average per day and Ethan Allen housed 184 inmates, but by 2014, Lincoln Hills was left to handle 241 inmates. This dropped the cost to the state from $49.5 million in 2011 to $25.9 million in 2015, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The situation at Lincoln Hills raised huge questions about this strategy. It suggested the merger caused horrendous problems and left an opening for advocates of more social service funding to argue that Walker’s priorities were all wrong. So the problem was simply hushed up. For more than a year, and more likely, ever since 2012, when that letter arrived from the Racine judge, the problems were not addressed.
This goes beyond mere (or even gross) negligence and suggests a complete indifference to the health and safety of the teen boys in state custody. The first and most important rule for a public official is to protect the lives of those he or she serves. By this simple standard, Walker has failed, and heartbreakingly so for those teen boys and their families.