Lincoln Hills

The Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Friday it has filed no charges in a years-long investigation into alleged abuses by staff against inmates at Lincoln Hills youth prison.

Federal officials said they found insufficient evidence to bring federal criminal civil rights charges against staff members at the Lincoln Hills facility, located in northern Wisconsin near Irma, concluding a troubling chapter in the state’s juvenile justice system.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Wisconsin, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI picked up the investigation into allegations the youth prison’s staff members used unreasonable force against inmates after an initial investigation by the state Department of Justice requested by the Department of Corrections.

The investigation has accompanied multiple separate lawsuits stemming from such alleged abuses against the youth housed there.

In a statement, Gov. Tony Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the new administration is working to implement a youth corrections overhaul to ensure the well-being of inmates and staff.

“This federal investigation may be over but the important work to reform our youth justice system is not,” Baldauff said.

The problems at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls go back years. In 2012, a Racine County judge sent a memo to former Gov. Scott Walker’s office raising concerns about the facility, indicating an inmate was not taken to the hospital for three hours after being sexually and physically assaulted.

In October 2014, the Department of Corrections began an internal investigation into allegations of abuse against inmates at the facility, and the state Department of Justice began its investigation in early 2015.

The FBI took over the investigation after several more red flags emerged from the prison, such as a Lincoln Hills guard calling Walker’s office to report a video depicting employees physically abusing inmates.

And in November 2015, a youth inmate had some his toes amputated after a staff member shoved him into his room and slammed the door, severely injuring his foot. In December of that year, as many as two dozen law enforcement officers raided the youth prison as part of the probe into alleged abuse of minors and staff and attempts to conceal it.

After thorough review of the evidence, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said prosecutors could not prove staff members used more force against youth than was necessary.

“Federal prosecutors must not only prove that the force used was excessive, but must also prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the staff member acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids,” the U.S. attorney’s statement said. “In this instance, there was insufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt a violation of the federal criminal civil rights statues.”

While federal officials filed no charges, the state of Wisconsin has settled other lawsuits brought by inmates and human rights groups. In May 2018 the state Department of Corrections agreed to pay $18.9 million to a suicidal inmate, Sydni Briggs, who called for guards’ help but was left hanging in her cell long enough to suffer permanent, severe brain damage.

In another action stemming from a legal challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and Juvenile Law Center, DOC agreed to end the use of pepper spray on inmates and significantly scale back the use of solitary confinement as a punishment.

In January, a prison monitor designated under the lawsuit found the youth prison to be non-compliant with an order directing they make inmate cells suicide resistant and only partially compliant with an order mandating the reduced use of pepper spray.

Closure planned

The announcement from federal officials comes after lawmakers last year overwhelmingly voted to close the troubled youth prison by Jan. 1, 2021, and overhaul the youth corrections system by building new state and county-run facilities. In January 2018, Walker called for the prison to be closed.

The lawmakers who helped craft the plan to close the prison had mixed reactions to the lack of charges from federal officials.

Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, told the Wisconsin State Journal he’s pleased the investigation has concluded and that “the black cloud has been lifted over the Department (of Corrections) and staff.”

He said the investigation’s conclusion shows the abuses at the youth prison were more limited than may have otherwise been the case.

“What this showed was that it was a small group of people that were responsible for some of the reprehensible behavior that took place,” he said, adding the state’s new juvenile corrections system will help prevent any future abuses.

Concerns persist

Meanwhile, Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, emphasized the conclusion of the investigation is not an exoneration of staff or the current juvenile corrections system, and that the provisions created under last year’s overhaul are severely needed.

“Bad things happened, it’s just not provable in a federal court of law,” he said.

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, cast doubt on the conclusion from the feds, arguing that the information provided to them by the Walker administration could have been insufficient.

“We know that something was very wrong at Lincoln Hills,” she said in a statement. “I just hope for all of our sakes, my colleagues will agree, that in Wisconsin, this behavior is not acceptable and won’t be tolerated.”

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