February 18, 2016

DoC: Department of Cruelty?

By Sen. Lena Taylor

Could the scandal surrounding the Department of Corrections treatment of the kids at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile facilities get any worse?

Maybe.

February 12 was an historic and potentially tragic day for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. The FBI announced they were taking over the two-month-old investigation into wrongdoing at the juvenile facilities. Shortly after the announcement, the Department of Corrections made Secretary Ed Wall’s resignation public. In his resignation, Secretary Wall stated it was time for the DOC to “turn the page.”

I had hoped when he turned the page, he’d announce his support for all the change that needs to happen at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. We know what they need from talking to experts in the field, the staff and the children: trauma-informed care, more staff to address the needs of the children, more access to their community, better learning and coping opportunities using the arts, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Governor Walker turned the page alright. Unfortunately, it looks like he turned the page back by more than a decade, by appointing former DOC Secretary Jon Litscher to fill Wall’s job. Litscher is a longtime Republican appointee who served under Governor Tommy Thompson and Governor Scott McCallum.

As Secretary of Corrections under Thompson, Litscher was successfully sued for violating the 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution. A federal court ruled that the treatment of the residents at Wisconsin’s SuperMax prison amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The complaint indicated residents at Boscobel spent all but four hours a week confined to one constantly illuminated cell, received no outdoor exercise, were only allowed to shower three times per week, and were subjected to dangerously hot temperatures. Ultimately, a court ordered Litscher and the DOC to change its practices.

This is about safe streets. Most incarcerated people will eventually get out. When they do, they will be our neighbors and coworkers. Don’t we want them to be better people when they get out of prison than when they went in?

I believe in giving people another chance. And that is why I have scheduled a meeting with Mr. Litscher. I plan to put it to him like this: you can either do it like you did more than a decade ago and be the Secretary of Cruel and Unusual Punishment, or you can turn the page and be the Secretary of Corrections. I hope that the leopard has changed its spots and is going to do this job differently this time.

Mr. Litscher is expected to have a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 2nd. About half the kids in Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake are from the Milwaukee area. Those kids might not live in Milwaukee today. But they will again one day. They are a part of our community and we should all care about their well-being.

As one of five members on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will hear Litscher’s confirmation, I will ask the tough questions.

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