December 17, 2015

Are our prisons safe?

By Sen. Lena Taylor

Last week, the Department of Justice raided Lincoln Hills Juvenile Detention Center. As part of this investigation, they are looking into allegations of child abuse, sexual assault, neglect, physical abuse, witness intimidation, tampering with public records, strangulation, suffocation and a number of other violations.

The events unfolding surrounding Lincoln Hills and its neighboring Copper Lake are horrifying. As a Senator, I’ve made constituent relations a cornerstone of my service. To me, it doesn’t matter if you have been convicted of a crime or not. I believe everyone deserves to be safe, especially when they are in the care of the state.

These allegations at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake open the door to a lot of questions. For example, if this can happen at these facilities, what’s happening at other facilities? What role did Governor Walker’s union busting efforts play in high turnover of guards creating problems of short staffing and a lack of training? Could some of this have been prevented had Governor Walker not taken away prison guards’ ability to negotiate over workplace safety items such as body cameras, surveillance cameras and improved staffing?

Approximately ten people have been put on administrative leave at these facilities associated with this investigation, which now includes the FBI. It seems that every day, we learn more through the media about what went on behind closed doors. One incident involved a staff member slamming a door against a juvenile’s foot that left the foot so mangled that the child’s toes has to be amputated. There’s the incident at the girl’s facility where two young girls hanged themselves, but luckily were not successful in killing themselves. Another allegation from Milwaukee County involved staff breaking the arms of residents.

The allegations of abuse don’t stop there. It appears the safety of the workers are in danger too. This investigation also includes incidents of residents punching and fighting the workers at the facility. In one instance, an employee didn’t seek medical attention until the next day because they were short staffed.

Governor Walker said publicly that after the raid, the facility is now safe. Yet, even since then, there have been reports of residents fighting with each other, urine being thrown at a worker and a group all refusing to go into their rooms when ordered. 

There is no excuse for inaction in the face of allegations of abuse. Our correctional facilities should be safe for both residents and workers. In 2009, when I became the first African American to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, I took the entire committee on a statewide “State of the Justice System Tour” that visited correctional facilities and communities all over the state. I even went so far as to create my own contact form that residents could use to more easily communicate with me. 

On Wednesday, Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison) and I continued our service to everyone at these facilities by calling for the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee to hold a public hearing into the safety at all our state’s facilities. Unfortunately, the chairman of that committee refused to hold a public hearing while the investigation into Lincoln Hills is ongoing. I will not be stopped in my efforts to ensure these children and our adult corrections workers and residents are safe. In fact, as of this writing, I just got off the phone with the Secretary of the Department of Corrections. I’m happy to report I will be traveling up to Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake to meet with the kids there as part of a listening session. After all, they have an important voice in telling us what they need the most. Additionally, I am already working on several other items, including:

  1. Coordinating additional rides to Irma, Wisconsin from Milwaukee so the Milwaukee kids can stay connected to their families
  2. Additional transfers back to Milwaukee to bring more of our kids back to our community where they have a family support system.
  3. Changes within the Department of Corrections, including an improved inmate complaint process, body cameras for workers, surveillance cameras to keep residents safe when workers aren’t present and additional staff, training and crisis counselors at the facilities.

These children need our love and faith. If you or someone you know has been abused at any Wisconsin correctional facility, please share your story with me and the other Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee. You can email all of us at:

Sen.Wanggaard@legis.wi.gov

Sen.Vukmir@legis.wi.gov

Sen.Lasee@legis.wi.gov

Sen.Risser@legis.wi.gov

Sen.Taylor@legis.wi.gov

 

Together, I believe we can truly make a difference!