Graham Kilmer

Pandemic Causes Youth Prison Problems

New report finds switch to virtual education and other changes taking a toll on youth, staff at Lincoln Hills, Copper Lake.

By - Jan 27th, 2021 02:22 pm
Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

The latest report from a court appointed monitor of the state-run youth prisons at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake shows that the pandemic is taking a toll on the children and staff.

The monitor, Teresa Abreu, visited the facility in December. She wrote: “There is a definite change in the overall atmosphere from the last visit.”

The monitor comes out of a 2018 settlement of a lawsuit brought against the state by youth that were incarcerated at the facility. This suit followed a federal investigation of the facility after allegations of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of staff.

One of the biggest issues affecting the day-to-day atmosphere at the facility, she wrote, was the switch to virtual learning. The children are not receiving the same level of education and staff that work in the living units are complaining of an increased workload now that they have to help students with Zoom classes and their schoolwork.

Along with major changes to the education programs at the facility have come adjustments in operations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Staff follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on personal protective equipment. Admissions occur every two weeks and youth are quarantined for 14 days and medically supervised before they join the general population.

The changes to education and programming are having a “negative impact on overall youth behaviors,” the monitor reported, leading to increases in fights, assaults and the use of restraints and isolation. And all of this will “have long-term impacts on issues such as the overall facility climate, safety, and length of stay.”

Staff are “clearly exhausted” and “fear for their safety.” The children showed increased agitation and boredom and complained of not seeing their families as often and increased use of restraints and confinement

“It is clear by the data, shift reports, and youth and staff attitudes, that boredom is taking its toll,” the monitor wrote.

The monitor wrote that the pandemic is clearly contributing to some of the problems noticed during the December visit. But those problems might be mitigated, she added, “if additional support staff were on site providing more normalized facility operations, primarily around education, treatment, mental health services, etc.” 

The “normalization of facility operations would go a long way toward reducing incidents of violence and other behavioral issues stemming from the lack of meaningful programs,” she wrote.

The monitor’s report recommends returning in-person education to the facility “as soon as reasonably possible.” While the number of educational hours has been consistent, the quality of education has been greatly reduced. Youth are having trouble with virtual learning and many are complaining about “not learning anything.” The children are “bored and wanting to go to school” and are complaining of not getting outside time. 

Staff agreed, reporting to the monitor that they felt there weren’t enough activities for the youth, and that youth were “acting out a lot more.” When the monitor visited, she noted that one housing unit was “rowdy and lacked control” and in another unit staff expressed that “they did not feel safe and that the boys were becoming increasingly aggressive.”

The monitor also reported that staff complained about “a lack of ways to hold youth accountable as well as a lack of incentives that will foster improved behaviors.” Staff said there were now “less ‘tools’ available to manage behavior.”

In recent reports, the monitor has noted that the use of restraints — physical and mechanical — has risen. This, she writes, “is very typical of a facility transitioning from and eliminating the use of OC (pepper spray) as staff develop new skills for deescalation and behavior response techniques.”

Restraints are used to “subdue an otherwise uncontrollable youth” to prevent injury to them or others. The rise in the use of restraints, the monitor wrote, “is more reflective of the lack of meaningful education and other programs as a result of the operational changes occurring as a result of the pandemic.”

More about the Coronavirus Pandemic

Read more about Coronavirus Pandemic here

More about the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake

Read more about Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake here

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us