March 4, 2016

Meet our new DOC Secretary

By Sen. Lena Taylor

In the middle of the scandal at Lincoln Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility, the Department of Corrections has a new/old Secretary.

This week, Secretary Jon Litscher took ahold of the wheel running the DOC… again. Secretary Litscher is no stranger to the Department of Corrections. Unfortunately, he’s also no stranger to scandal and he’s no stranger to losing lawsuits.

Secretary Litscher has run DOC before, he’s been sued before and another Secretary had to come in and clean up his mess before. They say what goes around, comes around. Let’s hope this time Secretary Litscher learns from the mistakes he made in the past. 

Before I get into what happened last week, let’s talk about what happened last decade.

In October, 2001, the ACLU successfully sued Litscher and the State of Wisconsin due to cruel and unusual punishment experienced by prisoners at Wisconsin’s “Supermax” facility in Boscobel.

In that case, a federal court ruled that the treatment of prisoners was cruel and unusual punishment. The complaint said 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.

But did he? Nope.

They had to go to court again to force Secretary Litscher to enact the court’s findings. DOC complained that in order to properly control the temperature for prisoners at Boscobel, they would have to install air conditioning. Litscher lost all the way up to the Court of Appeals in 2003. In the end, the state probably spent more on lawyers than it would have on installing the dang air conditioning in the first place. The case dragged on so long, the next secretary of DOC had to clean up the mess.

Which is exactly what Litcher must do about the mess he’s inheriting at DOC.

With the ongoing scandal at Lincoln Hills, Secretary Litscher has a chance at redemption. Regardless of what they did to get them there, our prisoners are still human. The care of these prisoners is a test of our humanity.

This week, the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing about Secretary Litscher’s appointment. Both during that meeting and my prior personal meeting with the Secretary, I was tough but fair. He sure talks a good talk. I like what he says about the kids, rehabilitation, and reentry. We also talked about the kids during our private meeting last week. But talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. In that meeting, I advocated for:

  • A trauma-informed-care approach
  • More community-based visits from Milwaukee to Lincoln Hills
  • More artistic outlets to help the children with their trauma.
  • Ultimately, bring the kids back to Milwaukee

Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rate of African American men in the nation. Nobody should be proud of that statistic. Talking a good game and backing it up are two entirely different matters. The Secretary of the Department of Corrections has to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to fix the problems at Lincoln Hills. But, we can’t forget the other people at the other prisons.

Secretary Litscher is getting a second chance to right a wrong. When he was Secretary last time, his Department mistreated prisoners and a court ordered him to stop. More than a decade later, prisoners are allegedly still being mistreated. But this time they are kids. Secretary Litscher certainly sounds like a changed man, but will his actions back up his words?

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