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Staff at Lincoln Hills School and Youth Prison face dangerous working conditionsSubmitted: 11/09/2017
Staff at Lincoln Hills School and Youth Prison face dangerous working conditions
WISCONSIN - Four weeks ago, an inmate at the Lincoln Hills School and youth prison attacked teacher Pandora Lobacz.
She is still out of work and says she won't go back unless there are changes made at the school and youth prison. 

Lobacz's assault was just one in a number of attacks that put employees on injured leave. 

Union steward Doug Curtis told us 10 percent of youth counselors can't work because of injuries from being attacked by an inmate or subduing an attack. 

But prison administrators say Lincoln Hills is safe. 

Staff at Lincoln Hills say they've had enough and are hoping something will change.


Kal Tesky is one of those employees. He also suffered from an inmate attack while on duty as a youth counselor. 

"Right now I fear for my life going back to that job," said Tesky.

July 1, 2017 is a date that Tesky will never be able to forget. 

"They got in my face and they told me to get out of the way. They were going to take me down," said Tesky. 

Tesky was supervising lunch time for one of the units at Lincoln Hills. He noticed one of the inmates working in the kitchen was offering better food to his friends. Favoritism isn't allowed at Lincoln Hills. Tesky told the inmate to take his food and have a seat. 

"So he walked out of the kitchen, turned around, glared at me with his fists," said Tesky. 

What happened next seems to be an all-too common occurrence at the youth prison. 

"As soon as I turned my head and pressed my body alarm he came over the top of me with both of his fists on top of my head," said Tesky. 

Three and a half months later, youth counselor Stacy Daigle experienced something similar. 

Daigle was overseeing a new incentive program to get some of the most dangerous inmates back on track. But one inmate decided he would rather be in restrictive housing, which includes some solitary confinement, than take part in the program. 

"And he said, 'I'm either going back to Krieger,' which is the restrictive housing unit, 'for you,' and he pointed to my partner, 'or for you,' and he just hauled off with a closed fist and punched me on the side of my head," said Daigle. 

Tesky and Daigle say after their assaults, the inmates were only punished by being sent to the restrictive housing unit. 

After a federal judge's ruling this summer, inmates can only be kept in restrictive housing for a maximum of seven days before they return to the general population. 

"I have no doubt he'll do it again because there are no consequences for them anymore," said Daigle. 

The legal ruling, called the ACLU injunction, ordered the staff to reduce the use of pepper spray and handcuffs - something the inmates realized they could exploit very quickly. 

"They know about the injunction and they are using it against us," said Daigle. 

Many staff we spoke with cite the ACLU injunction as adding to the dangerous environment at Lincoln Hills.
But they all cited the same thing as a catalyst. 

"In my opinion, Act 10," said Daigle.
 
"The brakes came off when Act 10 was enacted," said Doug Curtis. 

"The Walker administration came in they came up with Act 10, they took our union rights away and next thing you know, everything started going downhill since then," said Tesky. 

Act 10 was passed in 2011 to reduce a budget deficit. It took away collective bargaining rights and benefits for unionized public workers like the Lincoln Hills staff. That meant staff had less ability to negotiate for certain working conditions. Youth counselors regularly work 16-hour shifts. 

Employees say problems have been building since the implementation of Act 10. But combined with the ACLU injunction this July, it's a "perfect storm," according to Curtis. 

Curtis retired a year ago after working for 20 years at Lincoln Hills. The dangerous environment was a major reason he left when he did. He still represents the prison's union workers and worries about them. 

"It's only a matter of time before someone gets killed up there," said Curtis. 

The Department of Corrections has taken steps to try to ensure the safety and security of its employees.
The DOC Secretary Jon Litscher met with staff last month to hear their concerns and come up with some solutions. 

"What we're trying to build is a total team effort in dealing with these issues and that is our ultimate goal," said Litscher. 

Two weeks later, Litscher and the DOC called for a lockdown of the facility. Staff from Lincoln Hills and other adult prisons spent two days searching each room for contraband.

"Hopefully both staff and youth feel much more safe after this is done and we'll use this as a stepping stone moving forward," said Interim Superintendent John Paquin. 

Both Litscher and Paquin said they feel that Lincoln Hills is a safe place, which is something that many staff members vehemently disagree with even after the recent efforts of the DOC. 

"I don't care what the secretary says, this place, Lincoln Hills School is a very dangerous place to work at this time," said Tesky. 

Tesky has been on medical leave since the July 1 attack.

He suffers from anxiety, a stress disorder, blurred vision, and a concussion from the attack. He sees a trauma counselor once a week and still has trouble sleeping. 

"My life is completely turned upside down since this assault. I'm a different person now. I don't know if I'll every be the same again," said Tesky. 

When he first started as a youth counselor at Lincoln Hills 19 years ago, Tesky said that is exactly what he was: a counselor. 

"Every night when I left there, I felt like I touched a person's heart and maybe he'll go back in to the world and actually make it," said Tesky. 

Nineteen years later, he says everything is different. 

Now there is only one thing that Tesky says will bring him back to work.

"Change," said Tesky.

Diagle says she will return to work. It's a job she says she was born to do " she likes to maintain order, work with kids, and develop new programs. But first and foremost, she wants to see control return to Lincoln Hills. Staff say better training, shorter work shifts, and more power to discipline inmates could help. 

Others have different ideas of what returning control means, and for one Milwaukee lawmaker, that means closing the facility entirely. 

Sen. Lena Taylor introduced (D-Milwaukee) a series of juvenile justice bills this summer. These bills called for things like moving juvenile corrections under the department of children and families, ending solitary confinement, and taking a trauma informed care approach for inmates. After recent assaults this fall, now Taylor introduced a bill to shut down the prison. 

"Enough is enough," said Taylor. 

Taylor believes Lincoln Hills isn't fulfilling its purpose. 

"We are not rehabilitating, it's not a space for corrections or rehabilitation," said Taylor. 

Taylor says she has tried talking to Gov. Scott Walker to create a special session, set aside more budget money, and to accept the help of experts. 

But now, she says it's time to explore other options. 

"We should not have a facility that you're not adequately staffing, that you're not adequately training, and that you are not giving the adequate support for a safe environment for workers and for youth and for rehabilitation of those youth," said Taylor. 

She thinks bringing young inmates back to the area they are from would help with rehabilitation. That way, the inmates would be closer to their families and the community they will return to. Many are from the Milwaukee area.

But not everyone thinks that's a good idea. 

"I think it can be healthy sometimes to get out of the environment that fosters the problems to begin with," said Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst). 

Tiffany represents Lincoln County, where Lincoln Hills is located. He doesn't want to see the facility move, but wants to see changes at Lincoln Hills to improve safety for staff. He cited the federal judge's order to limit solitary confinement and pepper spray as a problem for the prison. 

"When you hear some of the statements from the youthful offenders that are in Lincoln Hills,' we know what the judge put out for an order and we believe we run the place now,'" said Tiffany.

Another issue moving the prison would create is the removal of state jobs from the Northwoods. Many state jobs are available in Dane County because that's where a lot of state agencies are located. In Milwaukee County there are a variety too. But in Lincoln County and the surrounding area, many state jobs come from the Department or Natural Resources and the Department of Corrections at Lincoln Hills. 

"The jobs are important and there are a lot of people making a living there but that's not the reason to have it in northern Wisconsin. The reason to have it here is because it's been a successful facility in turning wayward youth around," said Tiffany. 

Taylor doesn't want to take away jobs. Instead, she hopes to repurpose the institution for people who commit minor infractions like OWIs. 

By moving youth to regional facilities, Taylor hopes the inmates and staff will be safer. 

"I'd rather see it closed than someone lose their life," said Taylor.

Taylor isn't sure if her bill will even be granted a public hearing. She calls her bill a response to the result of mismanagement. 


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