Staff taught abusive tactics at Lincoln Hills

You can’t open a newspaper lately without seeing the results of our failed juvenile justice system.

I’m sure you’ve heard of Lincoln Hills, Wisconsin’s corrections facility for underage offenders that is under a federal investigation because of mistreatment of both inmates and staff.

This week another story leaked out of Lincoln Hills. The staff were instructed and encouraged to use abusive techniques when handling youth. Excessive force was the law of the land, and pain was stressed as the end result.

After learning of the news, I got right on the telephone with the Secretary of the Department of Corrections. He assured me the training officer was dismissed and all workers with physical contact with the youth have been retrained.

Still, this is just another in a long line of bad news coming out of Lincoln Hills. Initial reports about the disarray at Lincoln Hills documented overcrowding, inadequate staffing, an overall lack of accountability, and a failure to meet basic safety standards. But the story doesn’t stop there. As the FBI continued its probe, we heard stories of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the facility.

In Milwaukee County, we call it the House of Corrections. In northern Wisconsin, it’s more like the House of Horrors. I don’t care what the crime is. The solution should never be physical violence or sexual assault.

This is no place for our babies to get better. I hope that’s crystal clear. When you are surrounded by bad influences and then end up in a place like Lincoln Hills, it doesn’t “correct” behavior. Hurt people hurt people and that violence just creates more violence. 

It’s easy to look at a teenager who made some bad choices and think that he or she deserves to be punished. But we can’t just sentence these young people to a life of crime and poverty. The Department of Corrections is tasked with correcting behavior; it says so in its name. How are we supposed to reform and heal these teenagers in an environment that is traumatizing and unsafe?

When I first heard of the allegations at Lincoln Hills this past fall, I made it my priority to ensure that these kids were treated with respect and dignity. I first traveled to the facility in January where I listened firsthand to the concerns and stories of the youth who had been staying there. This was an eye-opening experience that reaffirmed my commitment to healing and protecting these children.

Moving forward, I plan to coordinate monthly community-based visits to help ease the pain and discomfort felt by these children who have been torn away from their communities and families.

I’ve also proposed a number of institutional reforms to mend this broken system. First and foremost, we need to transfer juvenile corrections to the Department of Children and Families. We need to remember that juvenile offenders are children, not hardened criminals, and they need to be treated with the sensitivity and compassion that children deserve.

I also authored a bill that would have eliminated the use of punitive solitary confinement for juveniles. Countless research on solitary confinement shows that extended social isolation and sensory deprivation have a harmful psychological and physiological impact on people. These kids are in our care to get better, not worse. Medieval punishment is not the answer, it’s part of the problem.

To truly help these children, we need to acknowledge and treat them with trauma-informed care to recognize the pain they suffered that put them on the wrong side of the law to begin with.

I refuse to believe these kids are a lost cause. It broke my heart to hear that those tasked with protecting these children were intentionally causing them pain. It’s clear that our current system is not functioning, but if we put in the work, we can make it work.

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