Home Opinion Are Our Prisons Safe?

Are Our Prisons Safe?


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 is full of 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. I will continue my conversations with the Department of Corrections and am currently exploring other ways to ensure safety at our correctional facilities.

If you or someone you know has been abused at a correctional facility, please share your story with me and the other Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Contact information for all five of us can be found at https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/committees/senate/1376.