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Officials say transformation underway at troubled Wisconsin youth prisons

MADISON (WKOW) -- The two troubled youth prisons in Wisconsin are going through a transformation after years of problems, such as abuse toward both juveniles and guards, according to administrators who oversee the facilities. 

Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr appointed Ron Hermes as the new Division of Juvenile Corrections Administrator, who began the job in August. Hermes overseas Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools and said it’s been his priority to make these facilities safe, calling it a “transition” in the works.

“The Lincoln Hills of 2020 is not the Lincoln Hills of 2015, not the Lincoln hills of even 2018, there have been a lot of changes that have taken place,” said Hermes.

Both juvenile facilities have experienced a whirlwind of issues as early as 2012 when then-Gov. Scott Walker was warned by a Racine County Judge about problems as the facility when an inmate was sexually assaulted and knocked unconscious by another inmate.

Since then, more incidents occurred resulting in multiple lawsuits costing the state more than $25 million in settlements and legal fees.

Transforming the environment at the facilities started before Hermes took office after the state issued a court monitor to visit these facilities, and under the deal, the state agreed to reduce the use of pepper spray, handcuffs and solitary confinement.

As of September, Hermes said the state is in compliance as the court monitor continues to offer recommendations, such as reducing downtime for youth.

We no longer have pepper spray and no longer use it, youth are no longer in restrictive housing or in confinement for punitive purposes … we are really changing the culture of how the facility operates,” he said.

Lance Horozewski is the assistant administrator Division of Juvenile Corrections and is helping implement new training practices for staff, such as de-escalation, preventative practices and developing relationships with juveniles. 

“What we know from this work is that through relationships with these youth, ultimately, we won't ever have to have these high escalation or assault behaviors of these kids,” said Horozewski.

Lawmakers approved a plan to close the facilities by 2021, which Gov. Tony Evers said is now “unlikely.” The goal was to open smaller regional facilities across the state to house inmates, but those have yet to be built or signed off for final approval.

As the timeline remains in limbo, Hermes said incidents will occur, but doesn’t believe they will be as severe as years prior. 

“I wouldn't say there's abuse and neglect that is taking place, there are incidents that happen, assaults that happen, fortunately, there have not been serious youth injuries as a result of those,” he said.

This month, three prison nurses were reprimanded for a 2016 incident for failing to give proper care to a 14-year old boy when his appendix was at risk of bursting. 

One of the three nurses still works at Lincoln Hills after the DOC never disciplined the staff members involved. Despite the 3-year-old incident, Hermes denied something similar in nature would occur again. 

“What I can say is that that would not happen today, we have very high professional qualified individuals working in the healthcare system up there,” he said.

When asked what it will take to close the facilities Hermes and Horozewski said they’ve done their part and continue to wait to hear from lawmakers on the next steps.

“A lot of these decisions are not in our hands, but we will continue to plan for both scenarios, improving Lincoln Hills and making sure there's effective treatment and care for these kids and will be prepared if there’s a transition to smaller local facilities,” said Horozewski.

You can watch the full interview with Hermes and Horozewski on Capital City Sunday.

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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