IRMA - December 14, Newswatch12 got the chance to send a reporter inside Lincoln Hills & Copper Lake Schools in Irma. Rose McBride went inside. The Department of Corrections did not allow cameras, so McBride decided to journal her visit. Those notes follow.
That Thursday morning, as I turned off Highway 51 onto County Highway J in Irma, I felt my heart quicken a little bit. I knew that in a few short minutes, I would be inside Lincoln Hills School and Youth Prison. I felt as if I knew so much and yet so little about the institution I have spent months reporting on.
In 2015, the Department of Justice began a criminal investigation at Lincoln Hills to look into sexual assaults of juveniles, excessive use of force by staff, and youth attacks on staff and other juveniles. Later in 2015, the FBI took over the investigation. It is still ongoing. Since 2015, other problems have popped up, particularly regarding continued inmate on staff assaults.
Since the beginning of October, I've spent hours speaking to current and former youth counselors at the prison about the struggles they face every day working at Lincoln Hills. While they tell me inmate on staff assaults have been going on for years, everything came to a climax when teacher Pandora Lobacz was punched in the side of the face and knocked out on October 11. This incident brought the culture of batteries and assault at the institution to our attention. I made phone call after phone call, trying to find out exactly what was happening at the prison. One by one, staff members came forward to share their stories with me. Everyone I spoke with echoed the same sentiment â€" the institution is not safe. Not for staff, and not for inmates.
But I also contacted the Department of Corrections to see what they could tell me about the recent batteries and overall safety of the institution. Each time I reached out â€" I got the same response.
Lincoln Hills-Copper Lake Prison "is a safe place for staff and offenders."
The two types of statements never matched up. Staff said one thing, the DOC said another. Thursday, I was able to see for myself.
When the Department of Corrections emailed our newsroom a few weeks ago to say they were opening Lincoln up to media, I jumped at the chance to visit the place I've spent months researching and writing about.
Thursday, I turned onto the long winding road up a hill leading to the youth prison. I had been there before, but I was always stuck at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the prison from a distance, not allowed to get any closer. But this day was different. I would no longer be on the outside trying to get a glimpse of what was happening inside. I parked and made my way into the building.
Before anything could happen, I had to pass through a metal detector. I knew the rules of the tour â€" no camera, no cell phone â€" just a good old fashioned pencil and paper. I even had to put my car key in a locker at the front of the building. The small metal rivets on my boots set off the metal detector. It wasn't messing around.
I was one of six reporters on the tour, which began in a conference room for a question and answer session. The DOC reps opened the floor for questions we had for them or Lincoln Hills staff from the psychological services unit, the health services unit, and security.
Major topics of discussion were the staffing issues that plague the prison. The Lincoln Hills security director told us out of 94 youth counselor positions, 20 are vacant. Out of 60 youth counselor advanced positions, 13 are vacant. That's NOT including youth counselors who are on injured leave.
The security director spoke to us about how overtime is handled â€" every Tuesday, staff can sign up for extra shifts. If there are still shifts that need to be covered, staff members are ordered to come in, meaning they have to stay for an extra shift. Interim Superintendent John Paquin said vacancies are an issue in prison systems all over the country, and the DOC is looking into implementing flexible scheduling. That would give people more autonomy over their own schedules and the times that they want to work. Tristan Cook, the Communications Director for the DOC told us all decisions regarding scheduling are made with institution safety and security in mind; a sentiment repeated with many questions we asked.
The topic of scheduling concerns varied greatly from what youth counselors I spoke with told me and what the DOC told me. Youth counselors told me they are regularly ordered to work 16 hour shifts, then come back the next morning with only an eight hour break. Youth counselor Lauren Juhlke showed me one of her schedules when I spoke with her the week before my visit. She'll work a 16 hour shift, then drive an hour to get home, and get ready for bed. After getting less than four hours of sleep, she'll be awake and getting ready to go back to Lincoln Hills. Then there's another hour drive back to the facility, and it's back to work.
I anticipated that this media tour was a response to the negative image that has been imposed on the prison by recent assaults. I'm not sure if that was the case or not. Of course, the assaults were brought up, but the interim superintendent again stated that the prison is safe and wanted to highlight the good things that are happening inside.
Representatives from the psychological services unit and the health services unit were on hand to detail a revamping of their programs. A year ago, both programs went through significant change. In health services, outside contractors were brought in to give the youth their medication after problems with youth getting the wrong medication. There are eight permanent nurses on the staff and a physician is brought in every other week. There are two people on the dental staff. Optometrists or physical therapists are brought in as needed.
In the psychological services unit, two new staff members were brought in a year ago, which brought the total to 14. Now a psychologist is always on call to handle any problems that may arise, even at odd hours or on weekends. Upon arriving at the facility, each inmate is evaluated. Some inmates are seen every day, some once a week, and others on an as needed basis.
Weeks before the tour, I spoke with two lawmakers who propose closing Lincoln Hills and repurposing the institution into an adult treatment facility. Senator Lena Taylor from Milwaukee told me many of the kids at Lincoln Hills are far away from their families and it puts a strain on them and their mental health because they can't often have visitors. I learned in the question and answer portion of the tour that a bus drives from Milwaukee either through Appleton or Madison up to Irma once a week so families can visit. Still, the effect of distancing the inmates from their families remains to be seen.
After the question and answer portion, we were off on the tour. As we exited the building, there were youths shoveling snow outside, doing their chores. We walked into the school, which to my surprise looked similar to a public high school. School runs from 7:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The kids take four core classes: English, math, science, and social studies. They also have physical education and optional electives like woodworking or welding. As a viewer looking in, it wouldn't be obvious that this was a school that also serves as a prison.
But there were some things that tipped me off that this was a little bit different than a regular school. Youth counselors walked the halls providing extra security, clad in DOC uniforms and body cameras. Classrooms have emergency alarms for teacher protection, and some teachers wear radios. The welding and woodworking classrooms have a metal detector outside.
Between 50 and 60 percent of students at Lincoln Hills qualify for special education programs. To accommodate for better a better learning environment and for security purposes, classes are kept small. Each class has between six and eight students.
The Education Director was giving us all of this information when the bell rang for classes to let out. A group of students left the classroom and went to get their coats in their lockers. It was almost like they all had school uniforms. But instead, the clothes they were wearing were DOC mandated â€" grey tops and black pants with black shoes. I had no idea what to expect from the inmates and how they would react to our tour group. As we passed them in the halls, a few of them said hello and waved.
We made our way to the gymnasium, where a class was getting ready to play floor hockey. The gymnasium and athletics program were two of the most impressive things about the institution to me. Inmates were able to use a gym to life weights, or take part in the group activity during P.E. The Education Director told us they want to provide as much physical activity for the youths as possible, because athletics were a big part of many of their lives before Lincoln Hills. Also, exercising helps them release steam.
Lincoln Hills even fields a WIAA basketball team. The process for selecting a team is rigorous, because they have to leave the school (and security of the school) to play. They travel to other schools and they host other high schools at their gym. The Education Director told me they get compliments all the time on their team and how they changed people's perception about what a juvenile corrections high school is.
Both boys and girls use the gymnasium, which is one of the few shared facilities. However, they never see each other. When girls go to P.E., the boys are eating lunch in their housing units. The only time boys and girls meet is on the youth advisory board, which is comparable to a student council. Select students meet with administrators to talk about programming and what they would like to see happen with the institution.
We left the gym and went thought a locked door into the portion of the school where the girls go to class. We walked into a classroom, which looked just like a regular high school classroom with fewer desks. There was a section with computers, a smart board, and posters covering the walls. Since there are only 20 girls in the facility, classes have five students each.
Kids have the opportunity to graduate from Lincoln Hills with a GED, HSED, or high school diploma. The school holds a graduation ceremony ever month. Graduates wear a cap and gown, just like they would in a public high school. Families are encouraged to attend the ceremony in the chapel, and the DOC and staff described it as a special experience.
INTO THE HOUSING UNITS
Our tour of the school ended and we walked through locked fence doors outside. I looked up and every fence around the facility is topped with barbed wire to make escape painful and difficult, if not impossible. First, we got to see a girls housing unit. In the girls part of the institution, there are two housing units and a building for activities and health services. It was a lot smaller than I expected. I knew there weren't too many girls there but I didn't think it would be that small.
The housing unit looked nothing like a prison to me. When we walked inside the walls were covered in pink construction paper with a "Care Bears" theme. It was also decorated for Christmas. Our tour guides told us the girls love decorating their living spaces. There is a big open space for eating, games, or watching TV at the front. Two girls were visiting with their "foster grandparents" and turned and waved when we came in. Foster grandparents are older people from the community who are mentors to the youths. They come and talk or play games with the youths.
One girl was doing laundry, and two were washing dishes in the kitchen. Our tour guides asked the girl folding clothes if we could see her room. She happily agreed and brought us into her space. There was a bed, some bins for clothes, and a window. She was doing a puzzle on the floor and had crafts she had made hanging on the walls. The room didn't look like what I had anticipated a "prison cell" to look like. It reminded me of a very small college dorm room.
We made our way out of the girls unit and cross the campus and went through another locked fence into the boys section of the facility.
The boys section is much bigger, because there are more male inmates than females. There is even a high ropes course on the boys' side of the fence. Right now there are 143 boys in the facility, living in 6 units. There are 12 total units, but only 8 are being used. Two for girls, five boys units, and one restrictive housing boys unit.
The boys unit was much livelier than the girls unit we visited, mostly because it was lunchtime and everyone was sitting at tables eating their food. Some of the youths looked over at us and went back to their food, but others were curious. One asked a Lincoln Hills staff member on our tour, "Who are they?" and she responded that we were visitors. I was intrigued by her way of describing us, and wondered if they let the inmates know the media would be visiting today.
Just like in the girls unit, the DOC asked a group if one of them would be willing to show us his room. A boy jumped up and brought us to his space. It was small and modest and nearly identical to the girl's room we visited. All girls have singles, but boys either have singles or a bunk bed. What type of room they have is dependent on risk level and other factors.
After we left the boys unit, I asked [Department of Corrections Communications Director Tristan] Cook if they let the youths know that a media tour was coming. He said no, they didn't want to alert them to anything different going on. I had previously thought the DOC might let them know we were coming and told them to be on their best behavior. But the more I thought about it, it was important they didn't know we were coming. We got to see them in their daily atmosphere, acting like they do every day.
DEPARTURE & FINAL THOUGHTS
The tour ended and we were able to ask any final questions. As I got in my car and made the snowy drive back to Rhinelander, I tried to wrap my head around the experience.
Before I went into the tour, I spoke with Pandora Lobacz and other staff members who told me to be wary that the DOC and administrators would only show me what they wanted me to see. Of course, that's what did happen.
When I got back to the station, all of my coworkers wanted to know the same thing: do you think it was safe? The past two months, that has been the golden question. Staff told me no. The DOC said yes. I had to reconcile in my mind what I've heard from both parties as well as my own experience.
I am unable to fully judge. On my 1 Â½ hour tour, I never felt unsafe. But of course, I was with other reporters and some of the leaders of the Department of Corrections and the school â€" they weren't going to let me feel unsafe. I came in not knowing what to expect, and left being fairly impressed with what I saw. The kids go to school, and it seems that they want to learn. I didn't see any violent behavior, and many of the inmates were even friendly.
But I know that can't always be the case. Parts of the tour made me feel like I wasn't at a prison, but once I saw the guards or chain linked fence, I was brought back into the reality of the institution. But of course, I don't live this reality. I just report on it. And my job is to report the facts I gather. Through my reporting I get a sense of what this reality is like. Hopefully my experience inside Lincoln Hills gave me a better idea of what to look for moving forward. December 14, I got a peek into the lives of people who work there every day, at all hours, just trying to make a difference in the lives of troubled youths.
Rose McBride is Newswatch12's 10 p.m. anchor and reporter.