Lincoln Hills, the state's troubled youth prison, continues to be in a "staffing crisis" that is causing young people to be confined to their cells for long stretches and miss out on classroom time, according to the latest report by a court-ordered monitor.
As of July 31, Lincoln Hills had a 40% vacancy rate for youth counselors, who work directly with teens held at the prison, according to a new report filed in federal court in a class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit, which was settled in 2018, forced the state Department of Corrections to overhaul how it cares for teenage offenders.
Only three of 12 social worker positions were filled, one fewer than in March. Corrections officials have not been able to hire a social worker since 2018, according to the report. Five teacher positions, or about a quarter, were vacant, the report said.
The staffing shortages have resulted in young people being confined for longer periods in their cells with little to do, not because they had misbehaved but because the prison did not have enough staff to safely supervise them, wrote Teresa Abreu, the monitor.
Young people interviewed during the monitor's most-recent visit complained about having to do classwork in their cells or on their units, where they did not always have help from a teacher. They felt they were not learning as much as when they had in-person teaching in the facility's classrooms. Some young people also complained about having little or no time outdoors and not being allowed off the unit to go to the gym or for other recreation.
Even as the prison is understaffed, the population at Lincoln Hills School and Copper Lake School, which houses girls on the same campus in Irma, has increased significantly in recent months. On Friday, the prison population was at 88, according to the state Department of Corrections.
The report comes three months after an earlier report by the same monitor that first flagged the staffing crisis. In that report, Abreu noted that unlike in previous years, young people were clamoring to talk with her.
"Youth attitudes have not been this negative in years," she had written.
The monitor's report notes that the Department of Corrections has raised the pay rate for correctional staff, including youth counselors, by $10 per hour to try to keep current employees and attract new hires. But recruiting new hires has been a challenge, the monitor noted, because of the prison's location in rural northern Wisconsin and uncertainty about when the facility will close.
State lawmakers unanimously agreed in 2018 to close Lincoln Hills and replace it with smaller facilities around the state. That plan was stalled for years - until recently when lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill funding a new youth prison in Milwaukee County, where most of the young people held at Lincoln Hills are from.
More: Site on Milwaukee's northwest side would replace Lincoln Hills under plan from Gov. Tony Evers
More: A new youth prison is coming to Milwaukee but hurdles remain. Here's a look at the closing of Lincoln Hills and what comes next in Milwaukee
For most of the last decade, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake were plagued by problems that made the joint campus an unsafe environment for both young inmates and correctional workers. In 2015, state and federal agents raided the prison after an exhausted and fed-up correctional officer shoved an insubordinate young inmate into his cell and slammed the door - smashing the 17-year-old's foot and causing parts of his toes to be amputated.
Just weeks before that incident, a 16-year-old girl calling for help was ignored by prison staff while she hanged herself in her cell - resulting in permanent and severe brain damage.
Legal settlements were reached in both cases that cost more than $19 million.
As an investigation into alleged abuse unfolded, a class-action lawsuit was filed by dozens of inmates who alleged the staff's heavy use of solitary confinement, handcuffs and pepper spray violated their constitutional rights.
That lawsuit ended in a settlement that forced an overhaul of the prison's practices and required regular visits and reports by an outside monitor to check if the prison was following the terms of the settlement.
It could be years before the new prison in Milwaukee County is built. State officials have selected a site on Milwaukee's north side where they plan to build the facility, but they are in the middle of processes at the state and local levels to clear the project before construction.
In her report, the monitor noted that moving the young people held at Lincoln Hills closer to their families and to Milwaukee, where culturally-competent programs are more widely available, would "have a positive impact on youth" and make hiring and filling "critical roles" easier.
Sarah Volpenhein is a reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities. Email her at email@example.com. You can support work like hers through our newsroom's Report for America effort. More information can be found at JSOnline.com/RFA.
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Lincoln Hills' 'staffing crisis' causes longer confinement stretches