WAUSAU - Earlier this month an inmate assaulted a teacher at the Lincoln Hills School and Youth Prison. Many youth counselors and teachers have reached out to Newswatch12 to express their concerns about staff safety and well-being.
Last Wednesday, Jon Litscher, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections, met with staff in Irma to listen to their concerns. Monday, he spoke to Newswatch12 in Wausau.
Assaults, long hours, and claims of an unsafe work environment made some staff members of Lincoln Hills School and Youth Prison angry at the Department of Corrections and management that oversees the facility.
But Litscher believes that the only way to solve issues facing the prison is to come together.
"What we're trying to build is a total team effort in dealing with these issues and that is our ultimate goal," said Litscher.
Litscher says that goal is threefold.
"The ultimate goal is to never have a staff member injured, never have staff feel unsecure, always have the offenders, whether they are youth or adults, provided with the skills, the training, and the support in respect to treatment that's necessary when they return as a productive member of society," said Litscher.
That goal, he says, is one management AND staff share.
But recently, the goal hasn't been met. Retirements, a rapid turnover rate and staff who can't work because they're injured means long hours for those who can work.
Working long shifts can create an unsafe environment.
"They say after a 16-hour shift you're not as alert and the time you came in. So by decreasing the number of hours of work, you provide a more alert work force and they apply their training in a way that is normal because they're alert and aware," said Litscher.
Currently, 14% of the positions needed to staff the youth prison are unfilled.
"We know we're going to always have vacancies. That's the reality of life. It can go back 20 years from the first time I was present in this job in 1999 that we haven't had vacancies," said Litscher.
Litscher said they discussed asking retired counselors to come back or creating overtime opportunities for people other than youth counselors, as well as furthering recruitment efforts to solve the problem.
But more than just staffing issues, employees said that the catalyst of some of these problems was the ACLU injunction.
A federal court injunction requires staff to limit to the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray, and restraint. It came after a number of lawsuits brought against the state by inmates and an FBI investigation into prisoner abuse and child neglect.
Staff at the prison say the injunction makes working at Lincoln Hills dangerous.
"I honestly believe you can implement the rules of that injunction with the proper rules that we have with our training and policy such that they can be implemented that they can have a safe and secure environment with the injunction," said Litscher.
Litscher stressed that the inmate who attacked teacher Pandora Lobacz earlier this month was in a restrictive housing unit and these incidents don't necessarily happen throughout the prison.
No matter how much progress will be made in implementing changes that will keep staff AND inmates safe, it will all be just that �" progress.
"All of it is a progress towards improvement. Will you ever get to that final improvement? No. You will never get to that final goal. It is a progress approach," said Litscher.
Litscher said that after each reported assault, the DOC meets to evaluate what happened, why it happened, and what can be changed to prevent future incidents. Litscher will also meet with the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office at the beginning of November to talk about how they prosecute crimes that happen in the prison.